Google rolls out Docs updates

15Apr10
Screenshot of Google Docs' new drawing function

Screenshot of Google Docs' new drawing utility, showing basic effects, text/photo insertion, and transparency

A few days ago, Google announced an updated version of Google Docs, their cloud-based collaborative document-editing software. There are essentially three major components to Google’s announcement: architecture, features, and Drawing.

From Google’s point of view, the architecture change is the biggest difference. Google says that the underlying software powering Google Docs (whatever it was) has been completely replaced, and that the new system will allow them to introduce features roll out updates more quickly than they could before. They also say it has significantly better performance. What went unsaid, but is almost certainly going on, is that this “new architecture” is able to do all this because it scraps support for IE6, as Google warned they would do, and is now fully built with modern web technologies that IE6 doesn’t support (HTML5, CSS3, etc.) I can’t emphasize enough what a good thing this is: I can say from experience (with my time at NextMark) that it takes almost 10 times as much effort to get a website working on IE6 than on every other browser put together, and ditching it will free up a ton of development time that Google can spend on other things. The best part is, the rest of us who are smart enough not to use IE6, see the benefits too, since we’re now running code that has been optimized for our browsers, not IE6.

Users are probably going to be more interested in the new features though. One of the coolest the real-time simultaneous editing: while Docs has always allowed multiple people to edit a document at the same time, these changes typically took several minutes to be seen by the other people working on a document. With the new Docs, Google has put in a system very similar to what Wave has: when someone else is editing a document at the same time as you, you see a cursor with their name, and you see their changes in real-time. I’ve tried this several times over the past few days, and it works great, even when the people working are separated by considerable physical distance. Other helpful new features include improved equation and macro capabilities in Spreadsheets, a Print Preview function, “snap grids” in Presentation to help line things up, and improved formatting when importing to or exporting from Office. The full list of new features is available here, and is impressively long: it won’t be long before Google Docs can do everything Microsoft Office can do, and in a more convenient (and less expensive) fashion.

Another addition is Drawing, which now joins the ranks with Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations. You can see a screenshot of Drawing in action above. Like the others, it has real-time collaborative editing, so you can immediately see the changes others are making. Feature-wise, it’s basically equivalent to Windows’ Paint utility: nothing too severe. It lets you draw lines, and text, and pictures, and there are some simple fill options and cheesy effects. Like Paint, it’s meant to be a utility for banging out quick sketches and explanatory diagrams, not editing your photos. For that job, it works very well.

Overall, the updates to Google Docs have taken a great thing and made it even better. Microsoft isn’t taking this lying down: they’re working on a web-based version of all their Office programs (I’ve used the beta and it’s actually quite good), but it’s hard to see it posing a real threat with Google’s huge headstart.

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