Microsoft Office Web Apps vs. Google Docs and Zoho: Office suites in the cloud

One key advantage for Microsoft's Web apps: amazing fidelity to the desktop-bound Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats

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Google Docs: Your desktop, online

No company is more jazzed about Web-based applications than Google, so you'd expect its suite to be the best, right? Wrong. In fact, the most amazing thing about Google Docs turned out to be just how woefully inadequate for serious work it actually is.

When you log in to Google Docs, you're greeted with a familiar, Google-style UI: spare, reserved, understated, even elegant. But while this trademark approach works wonders for Google's search products, with Google Docs it belies a paucity of features that's instantly frustrating.

Just for starters, forget about a smooth migration away from Microsoft Office. Google added support for Office 2007 file formats in June, but so what? Even with the older Office formats, Docs chokes on all but the most rudimentary formatting. I tried importing various real-world files from my archives -- not mock-ups or demos, but actual work -- and anything more complicated than a simple column of text came up distorted.

A demo file created in Word 2007 revealed just how many features Docs gets wrong. Tab stops, paragraph spacing, page margins, and placed images all move around indiscriminately. Curly quotes import properly, but that's actually a minus because there's no way to type them in Docs.

Revisions made using Word's Track Changes feature appear all jumbled together as plain text; ditto for Comments. Page headers and footers are converted to inline text at the top of the document -- no surprise, because Docs doesn't even preserve pagination. Macros? Auto-update fields? Dream on.

Google Docs with demo file created in Word 2007

A demo file created in Word 2007 reveals just how many features Google Docs gets wrong. Click to view larger image.

The same goes for Excel files. Basic figures and formulas import properly -- which would be great if you were migrating from Lotus 1-2-3 -- but don't expect much else. Images are discarded, along with any formatting beyond simple cell sizing and shading. Charts embedded in Excel 2007 appear as big, white boxes labeled "No Data."

Charts embedded in Excel 2003 or earlier simply disappear. It's often possible to tweak the Excel 2007 charts by hand so that they draw from the right columns, but even then, Docs' graphing engine is mostly a toy. There's no support for features like trend lines, no formatting options, and the output is hardly presentation-ready.

Google Docs with demo file created in Excel 2007

Charts embedded in Excel 2007 appear as big, white boxes labeled "No Data."

Click to view larger image.

With PowerPoint files, Docs does an adequate job of preserving the basic look and feel of presentations, but again, it's a poor substitute for the original. Graphics appear blurry and re-sampled, text moves around without warning, and animations and transitions are eliminated. And here, Google doesn't bother making a pretense of supporting PowerPoint 2007.

Despite its faults, Docs does incorporate some intriguing, even revolutionary ideas. If the goal was simply to mimic the current office paradigm on the Web, Docs would be a miserable failure, but Google is looking at the bigger picture. If outside-the-box thinking excites you, you may want to give it a try.

For example, in keeping with Google's idea of working in "the cloud," Docs discards the usual files-and-folders desktop metaphor. Instead, it presents your documents in a chronological view resembling an e-mail inbox, based on what you worked on most recently. Similarly, you don't need to save multiple copies of documents as you make revisions because Docs maintains an internal version history for each document that allows you to view or revert to an earlier draft at any time.

Rather than simply re-creating desktop apps in the browser, Docs is Web-centric. You can import documents via e-mail or from the Web, or embed them in blogs or Web sites to share with the public. There's a UI for embedding YouTube videos in your presentations. There's basic version control to allow multiple authors to work on the same document. Forget paper; with Google Docs, it's all about sharing, collaboration, and online publishing.

But most of us in the real world have given up on the "paperless office," and once your feet land back on the ground, Docs disappoints once again. In keeping with its Spartan feature set, printing is thoroughly mediocre. As already noted, Docs seldom gets pagination right, particularly where images come into play, and it thinks nothing of breaking a page midtable. Fonts that render correctly onscreen might not print, and graphics come out blurry and jaggy.

Joel Spolsky once wrote that the problem with lightweight office suites is that 80 percent of users need only 20 percent of the features of Microsoft Office, but it's a different 20 percent every time. Google Docs doesn't give you all of the features of Office and it doesn't try to. Unfortunately, in its present state it's missing so much that it's sure to lack something for just about everybody.

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