Google premiers online tools

Why pay for an expensive productivity package like Office when you can use one for free, online, from any ­computer?

Google is hoping that millions of web users are thinking this — and has begun offering just that.

After buying Writely, an online word-processing program, earlier this year, Google was expected to add it to the web-based spreadsheet application it quietly released a few months ago.

And, as is its habit, Google launched Google Docs & Spreadsheets (docs.google.com) last month with little fanfare and in its ­customary “beta” status, which refers to software in its final pre-release state.

Google’s Gmail webmail is one of the world’s longest-running and most successful beta releases, and an account is a requirement to use Docs, and other Google services for that matter.

Where Office 2007 is a triumph of usability, Google Docs is a triumph of accessibility — as long as you have always-on broadband.

Compared to the new Office, Google Docs is relatively simplistic, but it fulfils its promotional promise to create basic documents and spreadsheets from scratch or to edit existing ones.

“You can easily do all the basics, including making bulleted lists, sorting by columns, adding tables, images, comments, formulas, changing fonts and more,” Google says.

It offers a “familiar desktop feel [that] makes editing a breeze”.

But where it gets interesting is in how it enables you to upload your existing files — either through a browser (by searching your hard drive) or by emailing them to a specific address so they appear on your Docs home page.

It accepts all Microsoft’s Word (.doc) and Excel (.xls) files and the often-used generic equivalents rich-text format (.rtf) and comma separate values (CSV), respectively.

Once these files are online, they are relatively easy to edit — but not quite as easy to share.

Google claims anyone can view the documents, but a person must be a Gmail account holder to edit them.

This didn’t work the first time I tested it, but it did work on subsequent attempts.

It required a Gmail login to view or edit a spreadsheet.

It cleverly autosaves every few minutes but the delay in loading documents is apparent, even on broadband.

Google is using its massive online presence to good effect: enabling Docs users to publish their documents or spreadsheets and allowing anyone to see them — through a unique website address. It also ­facilitates the publishing of blogs.

Google is also integrating its ­various offerings — especially Gmail’s contacts as well as its online calendaring — into the online equivalent of Office.

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