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Google Docs gets better -- but is it ready to take on Office?

The new version adds collaboration tools and drawing software, but drops the ability to work offline.

April 22, 2010 12:25 PM ET

Computerworld - The new version of Google Docs sports considerable collaboration tools, as well as improved editing and formatting, a faster, more useful spreadsheet and new collaborative drawing software. It's a worthwhile upgrade to the Web-based office suite, especially for those to whom collaboration is of vital importance. But because it no longer allows offline access to documents (for now), and because it's still not as powerful as Microsoft Office, it's not likely to knock Office off of its throne as king of the productivity suites.

Google Docs
The new version of Google Docs' word processor adds a ruler and tab stops.

It's likely no coincidence that this major update to Google Docs arrives just before Microsoft finalizes Office 2010. Based on what I saw when I reviewed the beta of Office 2010, this new version of Google Docs is far superior to the Web-based version of Office. Those who want to work collaboratively with colleagues on documents online will want to use Google Docs, while those who want the most powerful office productivity suite will stay with Office.

Note that by default, current Google Docs users will still be presented with the old version of the Web-based software. You have to actively turn on the new features.

To access the new version, when you're in your Docs list, click the Settings link on the upper right portion of the screen, select Document Settings, click the Editing link, then select the option "Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor." Reverse those steps if you want to return to the older version of Google Docs.

Keep in mind that a document you create with the new version of Google Docs will always open in that new version, even if you end up deciding to go back to the old version for creating new documents. In other words, once you create something in the new version, it will always open in the new version, no matter what your settings are.

This holds true even for documents created by other people; if someone creates a document in the new version, when you open that person's document, it will open in the new version -- even if you haven't yet used or enabled the new version. Also, if you're using the new version, you can edit documents created with the old version.

New tools for the word processor

Those who use their word processor for collaboration will be particularly pleased with this new version of Google Docs. Unlike in the previous version, you can see the changes that people make in real time as they type. When someone else is typing in a document, a colored cursor moves as they make the changes (each person gets his own color), with the person's name above the cursor.

The other major change for collaborators is that you can now chat as you work on a document. When other people are working on the same document as you, you're shown a list of names on the upper right portion of the screen. Click the down arrow next to a name or names, and a chat sidebar opens that includes a list of all the people working on the document (again, color-coded) and displays an area where you can type to chat and see other people's chats.

Google Docs
You can now chat as you edit documents with others in the word processor.

These two collaboration features were previously available in the Google Docs spreadsheet but not in its word processor. They may not seem significant, but taken together, they're a major step forward in true collaboration.



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