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4/15/2010
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First Look: Google Docs Gets Realtime Collaboration

Improved collaboration features and better integration with Microsoft Word are hallmarks of Google's revised Documents app. Our video shows details.

While the realtime collaboration capabilities could become a serious game changer as various solution providers look to crack the code on productivity, improved document format compatibility with Microsoft Office is probably the new feature that will get the most attention from shops that have so far resisted Google Apps.

As can be seen in the video at the end of this article, Google Documents does a much better job than it did before when it comes to preserving special formatting in documents being imported from Word. With tab stops, bullets, left and right justifications, etc., a resumé, according to Harris, is a good example of a document with complicated formatting. It is typical of a formatted business document that users would want to more easily move between Google Documents and Microsoft Word without any loss of fidelity.

In the video, Harris shows how a Word-authored resumé looked after being imported into the old version of Google Documents, and how it looked when it was imported into the new version. In the case of the former, there's a severe loss of formatting. In the case of the latter, the two look nearly identical.

Most businesses have a range of complexity when it comes to their Word-authored documents. It's impossible for InformationWeek to test for all edge-cases. But, given how there's a free version of Google Apps, any organization can easily test its documents against the new Google Documents to see if there's a fidelity loss or not.

A couple of other features that Harris shows in the video have to do with editing behaviors that people using Microsoft Word might not want to leave behind. One of these has to do with being able to freely float images within a paragraph in a way that the paragraph's text auto-wraps itself around the free-floating image. The other has to do with making margin adjustments that are specific to certain paragraphs instead of the entire document.

In our tests of the features that allow for free-floating graphics, we discovered three issues. First, if the graphic spanned more than one paragraph of text, the text in the first of those paragraphs would wrap correctly around the graphic, but not the text in subsequent paragraphs.

Additionally, our attempts to export (to Microsoft Word) documents with an embedded graphic in them didn't work as expected. The text came over, but the graphic did not.

Finally, when any embedded graphic is selected, that graphic is automatically activated with what appears to be resizing handles. However, any attempts to grab those handles and resize the graphics didn't work. Harris was quick to point out that these are all issues that Google is aware of and that he expects them to be fully resolved by the time Google Documents comes out of the current preview mode and is fully launched around early summer.

These and other Word-like features obviously don't come close to touching the complete feature set found in Microsoft Word, and Google has been pretty upfront about their ambitions, which is to address only the features that the majority of the users need. This is widely interpreted as the proverbial 20/80 rule: going after the 20 percent of the features needed by 80 percent of the users.

But earlier this week, at Google's invite-only Atmosphere Conference for CIOs, the Associated Press quoted Google CEO Eric Schmidt as saying that Google "is aiming to provide about 80 percent of all the tools available in more established programs such as Office." It is one of the very few times that Schmidt has spoken specifically about Google Apps in public, particularly in the context of the competition (though not mentioned, obviously Microsoft).

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