Some thoughts on using Google Docs

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on using a Chromebook for an extended period, I thought it worth updating it (coming soon!), as well as jotting down some thoughts about Google Docs.  This got so big (and is relevant to all platforms, not just the Chromebook) that for the sake of clarity I decided to hive it off as a separate post.

Game-changing features

I think the main thing I’ve had to learn in terms of my expectation of what Google Docs can do, is to consider them as functions of a large and very advanced database.  From this perspective, the vague consideration of “wow – how do they even do that?” becomes much easier to resolve and put to rest.  With that in mind, I can now take a deep breath and present some major gains I’ve found with Google Docs as opposed to working in traditional desktop productivity apps like MS Office.

Never hit “Save” (or ctrl-S) again

This is a big one.  I type out a sentence, and then pause to look up to the toolbar… the word “Saving…” presents itself for a few seconds, before eventually changing to “All changes saved in Drive”. In theory, this means I can go into a document, type some stuff, then just navigate away from it in the knowledge that the changes were saved without my even having to worry about it.  Compared with MS Office, where it’s quite normal to get completely sucked-in to writing that important document then have it crash when fine-tuning the formatting and then find you didn’t manually save that last 3 hours of work, even the Autosave functionality often doesn’t keep up with important edits.  The Google Way™ seems so much better, and has saved many a draft.

Always available, on any computer in the world…

…provided that it has an Internet connection and a modern web browser.  This has massive implications for the freedom of users to roam the planet as they need and still have access to the information that’s important to them.  Obviously this doesn’t negate the need for backup of truly valuable data – but does act as a less-admin-intensive solution than providing a full roaming Windows/Mac roaming network account with all the security and software licensing hassles that creates.

Collaboration

It’s now routine for my boss and I to dump a load of notes into a Document, or run through entries on a spreadsheet, then have both of us view and edit the same document at the same time.  While we remain online and inside the document(s), we can each see who is doing what and where – even where the cursor is for each user.  This helps us greatly in documenting expenses, working through tricky wording of contracts, manuals, specifications and other basic project management tasks.  This feature alone, working across documents, spreadsheets and even presentations, has changed our working lives for the better.

Word processing

Generally, for any document created in Google Docs itself, everything pretty much works as expected – at least from a simple “type up some notes, edit then, make them look vaguely presentable, and print/email it” perspective.
That said, some foibles have been found that have stepped in the way of my making a more complete switch to Google Docs full-time, and relying on MS Office:

  • Previewing of MS Office documents does indeed (mostly) work, but Google Docs’ more simple headings, formatting and layout options mean that document fidelity with formal reports tends to suffer.
    • Sometimes inserted graphics disappear, or are rendered very badly, or appear in the wrong place with text wrapping mangled in the process.
    • Appendices and other numbered/customised headings tend to get lost – sometimes changing the implied meaning and flow of the incoming report.
    • To get around these issues, I tend to ask those reporting to us to submit (both final and draft) reports to me either as email body text (for informal reports), or as PDF’s for more formal work.
  • Page layouts that preview well on-screen can end up with very different pagination, especially when printing to A4, or rendering to PDF.
  • Working with headers and footers is basic, but in fairness does allow insertion of tables, images etc for fine control over layout of logos, titles, author details, page numbers etc.
  • While I’m pleased to see that footnotes work, it’s not a full referencing system that can log and tabulate the source of each reference – again this makes full academic and some reporting use-cases awkward, and calls for migration to more powerful desktop software.
  • Table of Contents can be inserted, taking and automatically updating its entries from headings used throughout the document.  Good basic stuff, but:
    • No page numbers alongside the links.
    • No obvious control over which heading classes are included, nor over the specific formatting of the table entry.
    • Headings cannot be formatted with numbering, in the way that MS Word or other word-processing apps handle.  (Collaborative) Drafting of formal proposals, reports or academic writing can be done on Google Docs, but really formal documents are best having the final text copy/pasted into MS Word or a more advanced desktop word processing or page layout tool of your choice.
    • Table formatting is quite flexible, but not as many available line styles or formatting options as MS Word.
      • Also, can only move cell boundaries when they are visible, eg. when they have a border thickness greater than 0pt.
  • Printing and output
    • Page size is set to US Letter by default. This can be changed to any other supported paper size – A4 for me, please!
    • Equations entered through the Equation tool end up inconsistently placed and pixellated on both PDF and printed output.
    • Documents can be downloaded (or shared) as PDF
      • An example of the PDF output, combining these and yesterdays’ posts, is here:  SamsungChromebook303Cusability (2))
      • Useful for sending out fixed versions of a document files as a reference.
      • The PDF rendering engine can have some strange results, notably with changes to pagination.  Stray blank pages get inserted, and some placement changes made for the onscreen page preview end up looking different on paper.
      • A 20-page report (such as this one, according to the page count in the footers) on-screen ends up coming out as a PDF with 22 or more pages, depending on how and where simple page-breaks have been used.
      • Interestingly, automatically-generated page counts remain correct regardless of whether the document is viewed in the Docs editor, or as a PDF.
      • These are the kind of inconsistencies that most users I know find absolutely maddening for formal work – and a crucial limitation for users to be informed of. It’s like using a camera that takes a photo of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, at sunset, and when you download the photo to your home computer you find it actually gives you a photo of a discarded needle on a wet East London street-corner.
    • Documents can also be downloaded in common MS Office and other (more open) file formats.

Spreadsheets

My needs for spreadsheets tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Simple line-entries and basic summaries thereof, for things like expenses, inventory-lists and the like.  This kind of use is so easy to cater for that I’ve yet to find any flaws – and the extra collaboration and availability of the files tends to win over the bulk of a desktop application and opening an actual file from a disk.
  2. Complex mathematical data import, analysis and charting, with templates for print output of charts and tables  to be included in other documents.  Such work tends to involve complex and obscure cell functions, and often (in Excel) some customised VBA code.  Such documents have previewed in Google Docs with reasonable fidelity, but there’s no way I’d expect anything other than MS Excel to understand the file, let alone work with it in any meaninful way or timeline.

Presentations

Rather than using presentations in teaching, I tend to use more of a show-and-tell approach, or even use a Google Doc (word processor) as a virtual blackboard to help explain what’s going on.  That said, when I want a simple pack of slides to summarise the points made, or to outline the plan for a day,
I’ve not played with the Presentations tool much beyond this, mostly because I expect problems even getting Powerpoint files to open and play out correctly on another copy of MS Powerpoint – let alone transferring them to another app such as Google Presentations.  

Mobile phones, support and contracts… (Submitted by email)

It’s been interesting seeing how the mobile phone market has progressed in a few years. Ten years ago, I’d have walked into a store, picked a handset that did what I needed it to do, and live with it as-is for the next two years or however long the contract runs for. Then wash, rinse, repeat, adding new features to the ‘necessaries’ list in the meantime to inform each new purchase. If a phone didn’t do what it should, software updates were out of the question – just check it thoroughly in the first week and if required, swap it out for a phone that does work under an exchange policy. My Nokia 6310i worked for years without updates, and was even supported by much newer OS’s for Bluetooth sync and data connectivity.

Then the smartphone came along, and specifically the iPhone and Android platforms. There are hundreds more features in these things. And that’s great. I love my iPhone and find it very hard to imaging life without one. I’d function, but with more hassle in some ways, especially with regard to navigation and planning journeys on public transport. Email and SMS have become staples of information exchange on the move in ways I didn’t even think possible, let alone useful.

The downsides with this mass proliferation of features and functionality seem to be:

1) useability – it takes longer to learn to use and harness all the new potential features that come as standard. Doing these steps, and optimising them for everyday smoothness is beginning to become as big a time drain as not using them at all. iOS6 has so many new additional features over, say, iOS4 that I’ll never realistically find time to try everything to see if and how it fits with my life and needs.

2) lock-in – there was a time for me in the late 1990’s that I came to know about standards such as POP3 and IMAP email systems and how to deploy them. I think LDAP or something like it was also available. These seemed to be worldwide standards – anything that could follow the protocol could essentially work with anything else designed to the same protocol, regardless of the software or service provider. Fast-forward some 10 or more years, and we now have a number of somewhat proprietary systems for the same functionality, branded by say Google and Gmail, or Apple and its iCloud services. Taking email as an example, IMAP functionality is claimed but doesn’t quite work as IMAP standards intended. Gmail IMAP basically works but needs a bit of tweaking to get it right. On the other hand, I’ve yet to get a bog-standard IMAP client to even authenticate to iCloud’s servers, let alone talk to them. So if I’m to exploit the additional features offered by either platform, I’m forced to use more modern, more expensive hardware for features that really are trivially easy in terms of processing power and network bandwidth, if only the providers would just stick to established standards. This isn’t strictly limited to mobile phone platforms, but it’s an important limitation that in part defines the solution deployed on my desktops and laptops.

3) software updates – all these extra functions and solutions, whether built into the device operating systems themselves or bolted on as third-party applications, require regular updates to fix bugs or security holes. This seems to be an increasing need lately, since the devices, operating systems and data protocols involved seem to be too complicated for developers to get right first time – a problem that is human in origin (nobody is perfect, right?) and will likely never be fixed while needs (perceived or otherwise) and functionality continue to grow.

My big question coming out of all this is: do I really *need* all this new technology to survive in this modern age?

If the answer is thought to be “yes”, can I live with the time and patience required to get the best of it?

I’m getting to the point where the madness has to stop – beyond retaining existing functionality, the answer to both questions is trending towards ‘no’. I’m a technology geek. By no means an expert: but this small voice feels that something needs doing to make things still-easier on these fronts if we are to see this explosion in technological functionality actually translate into useful productivity. Anyone care to add any thoughts on this?