In the past year, the Silicon Valley company with billions in the bank has been offering something else to make the folks in Redmond, Wa., sit up and take notice: free web-based services which take direct aim at some of Microsoft's best cash cows.
Google Docs consists of two online applications: one for spreadsheets, introduced earlier this year, and a word processing program, a relaunch of Writely, which was acquired by Google in March when it bought Upstartle, the Silicon Valley startup that created the program.
I wrote this column using the word processing application. It isn't quite as robust as Microsoft Word, but it does offer all the functionality that many people will need for basic writing tasks.
A few minutes ago, I did some calculations using the spreadsheet application, which can serve as a reasonable alternative to Microsoft Excel, depending on the needs of the user.
Neither is really a "program" in the true sense of the word; but these web-based services do, to some extent, compete with Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite of applications.
Both the word processor and the spreadsheet application operate over the Internet inside a browser. That's both a positive and a negative. It's positive because it means you can work on the same document or data using any computer that happens to be handy. You could, for example, begin a document at the office and finish it at home or from an Internet cafe while on the road.
Because your documents will be online, it's easy to collaborate with others or otherwise share data. Co-authors could access the same word processing file. Colleagues in disparate parts of the world could access each other's spreadsheets.
Another advantage is that you don't have to worry about backing up your work. Google stores your documents and spreadsheets on a secure server which it backs up on a regular basis. If your hard drives were to crash, or if your laptop were lost or destroyed, your data would still be safe.
The downside, of course, is that you can't access your documents unless you have a live Internet connection. So forget editing a document or accessing a spreadsheet from an airplane, unless you've first exported it for use on a PC, or happen to be on one of the few flights that have Internet access.
Even if you stay on the ground, if your Internet connection goes down, you can lose access to your work until it's copied over to your PC. Microsoft Office works just fine regardless of whether you happen to also be online.
To its credit, Google does allow you to upload and download Word files. You can import a Word file from your PC, and you can save an online "doc" file to a PC in a number of formats, including Word, HTML (for the web), OpenOffice (a free "open source" word processor).
Moving basic documents and text between Google's document tool and Word is quite painless. Not only can you move the text, but you can keep the formatting intact as well.
To use Docs and Spreadsheets, point your browser to docs.google.com. If you already have a Google or Gmail account, sign in with that user name. If not, you can create an account on that page. Once you've signed in, you can create a new document or spreadsheet, or, you can upload an existing document from your PC.
Creating and editing a new document is quite straightforward. Just start typing and correct any mistakes by selecting the text and retyping or inserting text where needed. Just as with Word and other PC-based word processors, you can change your font as well as the color and size of your text. You can also add bold, italics and underlining.
There is a spellchecker and some basic formatting tools such as the ability to add align to the left, center or right, add a numbered or bulleted list, and indent. Like Word, there are even some styles to give you immediate control over the look of part or all of your document.
You can also easily embed a website link to your document and, if you're using the service to edit a web page, you can optionally view and edit your document in HTML format. One very cool feature allows you to view all of your revisions. As you work, Google is saving versions of your document and if you do something really bad you can go back to a previous version.
As a professional wordsmith, I probably won't use the documents feature very often because I am not only quite comfortable with Word, I've used many of its advanced customization features to streamline my work. I suspect, however that's not the case for most Word users.
When it comes to spreadsheets, I'm more of a basic user, so the Google spreadsheet application does appeal to me. Of course it's far less sophisticated than Microsoft Excel but, as a longtime Excel user, I have to admit that I have never even scratched the surface of Excel's many features.
So while heavy duty spreadsheet jockeys are likely to keep using Excel, people who have only an occasional need for spreadsheets might find the Google offering easier to use and, of course it's free.
Like the word processing applications, the spreadsheet can be shared with others. It could be a great way, for example, for an off-premise employee to submit an expense report without having to e-mail it to the office. It also makes it easy for people working together to share financial documents and other spreadsheet data.
So, will it work for you?
Decide for yourself. Create a couple of documents and do some figuring.
The price might be right.
By Larry Magid