One of the biggest disappointments for me after the iPad launched in April 2010 was learning that I could not edit Google Docs documents using the iPad's Safari web browser. This story has improved in the two years since then. However, Google still does not provide a full Docs office suite solution in mobile browsers.
iOS users may have to settle for hidden, crippled and broken Google Docs support, but Google provides a real native app for its own Android platform. Does it provide the kind of capability that Apple's iWorks components (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) does for the iPad or, presumably, Microsoft Office for the upcoming Windows 8 tablet platform? I took a close look at the free Google Docs for Android on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet to answer that question for myself. In fact, part of this article was created using the Google Docs app. Here are some of the key bits of understanding the app that you should know: Both the good and the bad.
The Google Docs for Android app only allows working with Documents (word processing) and Spreadsheets. It does not support creating or editing with the other Google Docs document types: Presentation, Form, Drawing, and Tables. The app can, however, view other document types including PDF and PowerPoint presentations. People who use Google Docs in a web browser will find the app experience on a tablet familiar at first glance. There are, of course, differences. And, most of these differences are annoying or plain bad.
Offline Experience for an Online Service
Apple's iWorks office suite components (each of which must be purchased separately) were originally designed for the desktop and the iPad to be used offline. The iPad version can automatically store documents to iCloud providing access to the document from anywhere. It is safe to assume that the version of Microsoft Office 15 for Windows 8 tablets will also provide a satisfying offline experience with a reasonable cloud storage experience using Microsoft's Skydrive service. The Google Docs for Android app, however, provides an unsatisfying experience both online and offline. Opening a document is slow over a reasonable home or office broadband connection. You always see and are delayed by a clock-like icon indicating the document transaction process in progress.
Tapping the triangular play button icon to the right off each Google Docs document (see screenshot above) shows the properties of the document and provides an option to use the document in an offline mode (see screenshot below). Unfortunately, the spinning clock-like icon appears each time a document is opened or closed. And, it takes just as long for the process to complete whether a document is processed online or offline. It is actually faster to use Google Docs in a mobile browser than using the app.
The Google Docs for Android app sends the user into a view-only mode. This is unlike the experience when using Google Docs in a desktop web browser where the user is placed in edit mode for Google Docs document types. Tapping the pencil icon near the upper right corner of the display switches the app to edit mode. The icon consisting of three horizontal lines next to the pencil icon enables viewing live editing. This is very useful when collaborating with someone else on a document, and is arguably Google Docs' killer feature.
The app's edit mode provides options not seen when using Google Docs in a mobile web browser. You can see icons in the top right corner of the app that provides quick access to these functions: Undo, redo, bold, italics, underline, font color, numbered lists, bullet lists, block indent, and block reduce indent. You can see in the previous screenshot and the one below that images can be viewed in a document too. However, these images take an extremely long time to load and be viewable even with a fast connection.