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Google Docs 2010 Not Ready for Prime Time—The Dark Side of Cloud Services
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Posted On July 22, 2010
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With SaaS (Software as a Service), cloud-hosted applications, customers have complete dependence on service providers. Unlike with software packages, if the service changes something that customers depend on, there may be no way to go back. So, fundamental software changes are different from incremental updates. Google has done a good job in the last few years with adding features and fixing bugs in its Apps suite. But this means that the company doesn't have a lot of experience in managing a comprehensive revision with hundreds or thousands of changes. The new version of the Google Docs editor is a complete rewrite, offering new but unfinished collaborative features, startling interface changes, missing significant functionality from the old version-it should never have been released from beta.

Google Docs 2010 was officially released on June 15, 2010, which means that all new documents are created with the Docs 2010 editor. Most people will discover the change by creating a new document and suddenly being faced with a radically different interface and significant functionality changes. Many of them have already complained in the user support forum. I hate to be cynical, but June 15 was also the release date of the new version of Microsoft Office with cloud-based services. Google's Docs 2010 version was then, and remains a month later, not ready for prime time.

Note: to opt out of the new version, select Settings / Documents / Editing (tab) and un-check the box labeled "Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor." then be sure to click the Save button.

There are the beginnings of nifty new collaboration tools in Docs 2010. When typing in a shared document, all the other viewers can see the new text immediately. That may make bad typists a little self-conscious, but it is fun to watch. The live chat integration is an excellent feature: it means that all the editors of the document can discuss changes in real time, without having to open a separate chat client. It would just be so much better if it had basic features such as timestamps and a log function.

The other big change is a new focus on word-processing features and interoperability with other programs. When Google Docs 2010 opens an uploaded Word document, it should look and print as it does in MS Word. Many command key shortcuts now follow the conventions set by Microsoft. This is clearly to make it easy to switch from the Microsoft Office suite to the Google Apps suite.

According to Jonathan Rochelle, group product manager for Google Docs, they had to change the core of the Docs file format and source code. The old version, based on Writely, was very HTML-oriented and simply could not support word-processing features such as margins, hanging indents, and tab stops. The Docs 2010 version has an "editing surface with positional addressing," which enables both the formatting and the collaboration improvements. Rochelle said that this will make more features possible, such as the new interactive equation editor and forthcoming spellchecking.

Outside of editing, there are still a number of systemic problems in the Docs list view, including docs missing from the listing view, inability to share without requiring a Google account, known download errors, and problems with PDF preview. In the last few weeks, users on all browsers and OSs have reported Docs editing becoming slow because the browser was using up all available cycles on their computers. This is clearly related to having the Docs listing open in a tab. The new API (Application Programmer Interface) could not export in the new document format from April 20 to June 22, and still has a problem that makes it impossible for some synchronizing programs to send updates from iPhones (and even Androids), and to process automated workflows. Finally, offsite editing of all Docs files (Google Gears) has not been available since April. Google knows about these problems and their representatives in the user forums say that they're working on them, and that they should be fixed shortly. Sometimes they have been, others are still dragging on.

In the Docs 2010 editor, the options to edit HTML and CSS could not be retained because the documents are no longer stored as HTML. While those of us who use Docs to generate web pages are not happy, I can reluctantly concede that Google really had no choice if it wanted any kind of sophisticated word processor.

Docs 2010 only has one mode for text editing, a page-oriented display that shows off its improved formatting. There is no way to view the text wrapped to the browser window itself, without margins or extra white space at the top, and the default window takes up 11 inches on a 1280 x 1024 monitor. This has upset many users who are posting very eloquently on the support forums:

Google docs has totally revolutionized the way our research groups writes papers. Writing a paper is a conceptual process, not a matter of thinking about line and page breaks or about margins. -user clzirbel

Google employees have acknowledged the problem and stated that they are likely to fix it soon, but declined to give a date. There is currently no automated way to switch a document from the 2010 format to the old format.

There are a significant number of functions in Docs 2010 that are simply unfinished in the new version. Some people using magnification and accessibility programs report incompatibilities with the new version. Footnotes are not numbered in the footer when the document is printed or exported as PDF, which is vital for academic publishing. Images often disappear or lose their text wrapping and are rendered over text in print and PDF. Exporting to PDF often breaks web links. Automatic ‘curly' "quotes" cannot be disabled, although they are unacceptable for markup source code, workflow integration, and typesetting programs. There is no way to set the table width as a percentage, and the text in the cells often gets lost under the next column instead of wrapping properly. Some or all of these make this version unusable for many customers who were doing well on the old version-they are showstoppers.

Finally, there is no support in Google Docs 2010 for "named styles" in editing, importing, or exporting. Many large institutions have gone to great pains to implement standard heading, text, and list style formats in Microsoft Word. Google Docs 2010 will import the formatting, but not the style metadata, so the promise of interoperability is not met.

There are other less urgent issues: the right-click menu has lost much of its functionality, the Paste menu item in particular. The spellchecker has a very limited dictionary and no way to add the correct spelling to a dictionary, so words such as "workflow" and "PDF" are always marked as wrong. There is a Revision History menu item, and one can go back to earlier versions, but there is currently no revision overview or version change marking, although a programmer has indicated that the features will come back soon. The Chat window has no history or discussion log, no timestamps, no links to the revision history. The new interactive equation editor has lost the valuable LaTeX integration. The Table of Contents feature does not include page numbers. International editing issues are not handled well: extended and diacritical letters often get inserted with garbage around them (example: type á and get rprtytskjkjahshsíáóaást´). While English doesn't use these characters, most other languages do, and they are integrated into localized keyboards. The key shortcuts are radically different, and with many non-English character entry codes. There are many more.

I am not saying that Google Docs 2010 is a bad word processor; it has the potential to be very good. I am using it to write this article, for better and worse. But this is more than a revision, and Google should not have switched it to the default in June; it clearly isn't done in mid-July, and should still be part of an opt-in beta test. As a company, it needs to identify the difference between incremental and fundamental upgrades. Many companies have made this kind of mistake: Apple seems to have shipped an iPhone that has problems when held with the left hand. But with a cloud service like this, customers have little recourse; they must take action to avoid breaking their document editing processes.

Google should acknowledge the mistake, return the default to the Old Docs version, and commit to fixing these mistakes on a reasonable schedule, with transparency, such as posted version numbers and revision notes (which it has not done so far). Only once the bugs and problems are fixed should they change the default to the Docs 2010 version, warning customers with an alert before opening so there's no interface shock. Perhaps the company is reluctant to do this because it makes them look bad, or because SLAs (Service Level Agreements) are supposed to encourage service providers to avoid mistakes like these, and big customers may expect credit for company time wasted solving problems with the new version. But people have committed themselves to this service, using it for their most important documents, legal contracts, journal articles, book manuscripts, and company workflows. And many of them have paid to do so. Having offered this service, Google needs to make it right.

And, in my ideal world, the Old Docs editor would continue to be developed as a nice clean web page editor. I can dream, can't I?

For a more detailed list of issues in Google Docs 2010, see http://bit.ly/g-d-2010-share or the web page version: http://bit.ly/g-d-2010-html.


Avi Rappoport is available for search engine consulting on both small and large projects.  She is also the editor of www.searchtools.com.

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