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6/7/2006
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Review: Google Spreadsheet Beta Doesn't Quite Add Up

Google's latest online service has a great interface, good basic features, and a nice collaboration angle, but it's missing some vital parts.

There's a lot of talk around the blogosphere about how Google is starting to challenge Microsoft for primacy in office applications. This isn't very surprising: Google's already got an e-mail client (Gmail), a scheduling app (Google Calendar), and has bought a company called Upstartle in order to obtain its Writely word processor (which is not currently taking on new users but, according to the company's blog, might reappear for invitees early in July). Now Google has released the beta of an online spreadsheet called, appropriately, Google Spreadsheet.

Google Spreadsheet is obviously aimed straight at the consumer/home office market -- in other words, at people who use their spreadsheets for reasonably simple accounting processes, data tracking, or other tasks. Since that is exactly where I fall in -- I use it for simple statistics and as a sort of "database lite" -- I thought I'd give it a try.



Google Spreadsheet offers basic spreadsheeting along with simple collaboration.
Click image to enlarge.

As a whole, I found Google's new app very easy to learn and use. It has the familiar spreadsheet look; three tabs on the upper left of your page -- Format, Sort, and Formulas -- give you access to the main features. On the upper right, buttons let you cut, copy, paste, undo, or redo any action. You can have up to 20 tabbed pages per worksheet; as in Excel, you access each at the bottom of the spreadsheet. A File drop-down menu offers access to the usual New, Open, Save As commands, as well as the ability to import and export.

There are several hundred formulas available in Google Spreadsheet; a sampling is accessible from a pop-up box (with the most popular listed on the right-hand side of the Formulas menu bar). If you prefer, of course, you can simply type your formulas into the appropriate cell.

You can import existing spreadsheets in either .csv or .xls format, so I tried importing a moderately long Excel spreadsheet that included a variety of formatting and formulas, and found it translated perfectly. Another that included some graphs didn't do so well; while the formulas and text areas came across, there was a huge gap where the graphs were supposed to be.

Missing Macros
In fact, that is in itself a huge gap in the functionality of Google Spreadsheet: It does not do graphs or macros. That is somewhat akin to saying that a word processor doesn't do fonts -- you can make do without them, but you don't really want to. Formatting options are also somewhat too limited; for example, I often surround the cells of my spreadsheet with borders to help define the contents (especially when printing them out); that feature is not available.

I was going to add "printing your spreadsheet" to things that Google Spreadsheet couldn't do -- there is no Print command in the File drop-down -- until I went to the Help area. There, I found that if you choose Get HTML from the File menu, the spreadsheet will open as an HTML document in a new browser window; you can then print it as an HTML page. (You can't, however, print parts of it, which may be a problem for folks with large spreadsheets.) This is an unusually non-intuitive method for an application that is otherwise pretty straightforward.

One thing that the Google Spreadsheet can do that others cannot is dynamically share your data online. You can choose to allow others to edit, or just read, your spreadsheet by inviting them via e-mail -- a nicely simple way to share spreadsheet data.

Like all of Google's new apps, the word "beta" is a part of the name of Google Spreadsheet. This has traditionally been Google's method of deflecting criticism; if something is beta, after all, it's not finished, and any problems can be fixed. Google has, for the most part, been good about fixing problems in its beta products, so it is likely that features such as graphs will show up in Google Spreadsheet sometime in the future.

Are Online Spreadsheets A Good Idea?
One thing that Google may not be able to overcome is a natural reluctance for users to entrust all their spreadsheet work to an online medium. While sharing, say, a calendar online is not new, and makes a lot of sense, sharing a spreadsheet online doesn't seem as necessary (although it can be convenient at times). And it might not be a good idea to be working with complicated figures on a spreadsheet which could suddenly become unavailable if your connection gets wonky.

Right now, my recommendation for those who need a spreadsheet, and can't afford a Microsoft app, is to go with one of the open-source applications, of which OpenOffice is the best known. Google Spreadsheet is fun to play with, and has some interesting potential as far as sharing data online is concerned, but right now it's more a curiosity than a working model.

Google Spreadsheet is currently in "limited test" mode; you can apply for an invitation at http://spreadsheets.google.com.

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