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Exploring Google Docs and Spreadsheets

This week I had time to experiment with Google Docs and Spreadsheets, the free online word processor and spreadsheet applications that work entirely within a web browser. Although not nearly as full featured as an office suite, they offer some compelling new capabilities that conjure up all sorts of scenarios that previously weren't possible. This is exciting stuff.

Google Docs offers a number of fascinating features.  I particularly like how it can support multiple people editing the same document (even at the same time) and its wiki-like ability to revert to previous revisions of documents. But it is Google Spreadsheets that I find the most interesting, particularly from an Enterprise 2.0 perspective.

I found working with a Google Spreadsheets to be easy. If you ever used Excel then Google Spreadsheets will be familiar to you. However, I do miss the keyboard shortcuts that my fingers sometimes seem to type on their own. I also think Google Spreadsheets is misnamed (which probably means you shouldn't hire me to name your product). Yes, it provides spreadsheet capabilities, but it does so much more. Google Spreadsheets may be the most intuitive, shareable, and extensible list manager available.

The list is a fundamental building block for collaboration within a company. Nearly every corporate worker deals with a list of some sort. Projects have issue lists and milestones. Product Development has a bill of materials. Marketing and Sales has lists of products being sold and lists of sales incentives. Nearly every team has a list of documents. And everyone has a list of tasks they need to track. The list of lists goes on and on.

Microsoft understands the importance of lists; nearly everything in SharePoint is based on a list structure. But Google Spreadsheets seems to take lists to a new level. First, it provides a familiar name and interface. Few corporate workers understand the POISSON spreadsheet function but everyone understands tables of data and we all know how to use Excel for project status reporting.

In addition, the recently released Google Spreadsheets API offers opportunities to improve the Enterprise 2.0 workplace by providing access to business data within the context of daily work and the ability to share spreadsheet data with other applications. For example, imagine having an ERP system publishing daily, weekly, or monthly reports in an online spreadsheet. Couple this with Google's recent acquisition of JotSpot  and the opportunities for a rich online work environment are incredible.

However, there are a few features I would like to see in Google Spreadsheets. First, the integration between Docs and Spreadsheets appears to be limited to the user interface. I haven't found any way to provide a dynamic exchange of data between the two tools. For example, I would like to have a cell in Spreadsheets reference a particular document or a list of tagged documents in Docs.

The new GoogleLookup and GoogleFinance functions are intriguing. GoogleLookup seems a little strange to me but may prove to be useful. It provides a way to enter answers to common questions. One of the examples in the online help uses this syntax: '=GoogleLookup("Roger Clemens"," earned run average")', to find the earned run average of pitcher Roger Clemens.

The GoogleFinance function supplies data for stocks like current market price or volume of traded shares. I would really like to see these types of interfaces be extensible to any application through standard protocols and formats. These functions hint at the possibilities of lightweight web service connectivity from a spreadsheet.

Google Docs and Spreadsheets are just beginning to get us thinking about how spreadsheets and documents could work in an online environment like this. It's going to be fun to see how these products evolve.


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