Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Collaboration using Google Docs

I recently had the opportunity to collaborate on an article with colleagues from around the world. The standard way to collaborate on a writing project these days is to email the draft back and forth among the participants. This works pretty well with 2 or 3 people, but it starts getting confusing very quickly with more. Two (or more) people make changes and email the draft out, suddenly you've got multiple versions, and no one is sure what happened to that paragraph someone stuck in--was it in Joe's version or Kim's update?

I decided to try Google Docs. When Google bought Writely, an online word processing program, they integrated it into their services and finally combined it with their existing online spreadsheet program to produce the Google Docs & Spreadsheet service. Writely had already a collaboration system (based on email logins), and Google just added the Google service login. Since our group was already using a Google Group to communicate, using some of Google other services was an obvious choice.

An online word processor is a word processor that exists on a web server rather than on your local computer harddrive. There are a number of them, most notably Writely, now Google Docs, Zoho Writer (and a whole suite of related services), and ThinkFree Office Suite. (Feel free to add more in the comments.) You can usually upload Word and other word processing documents (.txt, .rtf, sometimes Open Office and Word Perfect files), or create a new document online. All the basic word processing features are available (fonts, colors, outlining, inserting pictures, etc.) The files can be saved to the web server, so they are available to you whenever, and from wherever, you log in. You can also save the files in many of the standard formats, usually Word .doc, .rtf, .txt, PDF and HTML, and often Open Office formats. Formatting usually transfers properly in the saved files, though I have found that margins are usually thinner than "normal". Most services have options for publishing the documents online, either to a separate website, like a blog, or on the server itself, as an ordinary webpage. You can also collaborate with others, needing only an email address for registration with the service.

We did have a few hangups. Once the document is online (either created or uploaded), you add collaborators (maybe not the best term--at least for those who have studied history) by sending them emails. People must log in using the *exact* email address used for the invitation. That was our first hurdle. Sometimes the "reply" address on emails is not the exact address, because of proxies or other technical slips. Sometimes people have (sometimes inadvertently) set up a system they are logging to the Google services under a different name than they use for general communication. Anyway, once we had gotten the email addresses straight, everyone could log in and look at the document online.

Google Docs has a nice feature that shows you who is editing the document at the same time as you are logged in (or technically, who is viewing the document.) That way, if several of you are online at once, you know that maybe this isn't the best time for your own edits! You could also communicate using instant messaging, while actively editing.

Another great feature, which is very common in online collaborative software, is version histories. As people edit and save the document, old versions are archived. You can go back and review previous versions with a click of a button. This is identical to the "history" functions in wikis, such as Wikipedia. Each version clearly indicates the changes and the authors of those changes. Just as in wikis, you can revert to an older version as well. This saved us, when one person accidentally deleted our whole article. It just took a minute to go back through the versions to the last one that had the whole text and call that one back up. Had the person who had the problem been more familiar with the system, the rest of us would never have known there had been an accident. As it was, we had a few frantic emails before I was able to go back in and fix it.

We didn't need it, but there is also a "compare versions" feature, which shows you exactly what the differences are. That could have been really useful if several people had been editing the same paragraph, for instance, and couldn't decide which version they liked best.

When it came time to submit the article, I just downloaded a Word version of the file, checked the formatting and emailed it off to the editor. I did have a little trouble with opening the files on my Macintosh, but I don't have MS Office for Mac on my computer, so I'm not sure if that was the problem. I haven't previously had problems with opening the files on my PC at work. It was quite easy, however, to simply copy the text (and pictures) from the website to the word processor.

Given the ease of use, I now use online word processing for a lot of my text writing, especially since I spend so much time connected to the Internet. I hope that the next step will be a downloadable program that will automatically synchronize with the online server, so that it's easy to work offline as well. Right now, it's easy enough to download the current version to your computer, but you have to cut and paste to update the online version later on. At this point, I don't think I'll ever pay for a personal office suite again (between the online stuff and Open Office/NeoOffice, I'm fine for everything I do outside of work), but I'd probably be willing to pay (a reasonable amount, anyway) for the downloadable synchronizing system.

I encourage people to try these services out, even if you aren't collaborating on a project right now. If you ever work on more than one Internet connected computer, you will find that having the files on a web server is really handy. And you won't have the "corrupted disk" problem! (Though you do trade it for the "inaccessible server" problem, so it's still best to back everything up regularly.) These systems will likely become more and more common. The LA Public Library decided to go with the Thinkfree Office Suite for it's employee and public access computers.

Do remember, however, that your data is on someone else's server. You should keep regular backups, and be careful with sensitive information. (I doubt the CIA will be using Google Docs anytime soon.) And there is nothing to stop Google from browsing your files and delivering tailored advertising in the same way that they do for Google Mail. If this sort of thing makes you nervous, this is not the service to try, or you should try it only on a very superficial level. However, if you are comfortable with the possibility that a company will have the same access to your files as your ISP or workplace does to your email, you should be fine.


Blogger cliff said...

Besides you mentioning web office apps, there is also EditGrid, a spreadsheet with chart, stock and forex quote and updating different people effects in real-time. Probably you should take a look as well

9:45 PM, November 15, 2006  
Blogger David said...

Nice summary of the online office world. Zoho does offer the offline editing capability. Ironically they use GoogleGears to accomplish the feature. It works very well.


10:32 AM, February 27, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was using Google Spread sheets....Lots of limitation and issues with changing rights for the collaborators. Whenever I remove some one they never get removed actually and they can still access the document and edit.There is no clue on how to change the editing rights atleast.

Using editgrid now....will know more soon about it too...

10:34 PM, May 26, 2008  
Blogger Lachlan said...

I found this helpful. Thanks for writing.

6:16 AM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Mel said...

Thanks for this article. It has given me an insight into how to use Google docs. Some of us had troubles with the email addresses as well. It seems like a very useful website though

6:18 AM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger gabrieldouglas-haynes said...

A well written piece on google spreadsheets etc. I now have a better understanding of it all, Thanks

6:18 AM, April 21, 2010  

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