Google Overhauls Docs & Spreadsheets

A new, faster, rewritten version of Google's cloud-based apps includes more collaboration features, but users will have to go without the offline feature for now.

Google has released a new version of its cloud-based Google Docs & Spreadsheet that's moved from an HTML model to JavaScript for snappier Web performance and more collaborative features. A new standalone drawing editor is also included in the release.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) said the new apps will "feel" more like a desktop app in terms of responsiveness thanks to speed improvements.

"This is a brand new technical foundation. We've rebuilt the architecture from the ground up," Anil Sabharwal, enterprise product manager for Google Docs, told "When you're using these Web apps they're going to feel even faster than desktop apps in some cases."

The news comes as Google is pushing to unseat Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Office, the dominant productivity suite throughout corporate America. The announcement is being made Monday at Atmosphere, a cloud-computing conference on Google's campus that 400 CIOs and other IT executives are expected to attend.

Google is hoping the collaborative features of Google Docs & Spreadsheets will give it an edge in the enterprise where more effective teamwork can lead to faster, more innovative results.

"Collaboration today is broken," Sabharwal said. "You send out a draft of a document and before you know it reviews two, three and four are being sent back and forth and chaos ensues."

He said Google's goal with Docs, which includes built-in commenting features and real-time chat, is to make the document-creation process as simple as having a conversation. Docs can support up to 50 simultaneous editors, and users can see other people's changes character-by-character as they type. It also features a new tool that allows multiple users to edit drawings. The program can be used to collaboratively build flow carts, schematics and other kinds of diagrams.

"Whereas with Microsoft Office, it's a much more siloed process that's more like putting a message in a bottle, which makes collaboration incredibly difficult," Sabharwal said.

Microsoft plans to offer Web-based versions of Office applications when Office 10 is released which is scheduled for this June and may come a month earlier, according to some reports.

But Sabharwal said Google has been nimbler in iterating new versions and adding features to Apps when compared with Microsoft's release cycle for a new version of Office, which typically takes several years.

"Depending on what analyst firm you ask, about 30 to 40 percent of companies are using Office 2003, which was designed in 2001," said Sabharwal. "A lot has happened in the last nine years. With the Web being so open, we can release something every few days, not every few years."

Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler said Google Apps has a place in the enterprise, but it's not ready to displace Office.

"It's addressing scenarios that Office and e-mail aren't good at. In particular, when a distributed team or a partner team is trying to get something done, Office and e-mail attachments are not a good way to keep track of things and to create presentations, documents or spreadsheets, Schadler told in an e-mail.

"Google Docs, on the other hand, handles the collaboration side very well, but it has lacked some important productivity tool features. Google has made some improvements, particularly in Docs and in the presentation software," he added.

One area Google will have to take a backseat to Microsoft again though is offline access. Microsoft apps have always been designed for the desktop. Google added an offline capability to Google Docs & Spreadsheets several iterations in, but that feature is, for a now, absent from the new version.

Disabling offline access

"The new editors don't support the older Gears technology, so on May 3 we're going to disable Docs offline," Sabharwal said. "Our intent is to bring it back."

Only a small percentage of users tap the offline access because there are so many options to stay connected these days, he said, "but they are passionate about it, it's a strategic part of our offering and we're working diligently to bring it back, most likely via HTML 5."

Google Docs & Spreadsheets becomes available today in a preview, opt-in mode. Sabharwal stressed the apps are ready for use and not a beta. "For enterprise use, the administrator can enable early release functionality and if that's checked the users themselves can create documents in this new format," Sabharwal said. "Users can opt in or go back to the old version."

He said the new version will become the default next month once Google finishes certain translation features. The complete, standalone drawing program is available now.

There's a demo and more information about Google Docs & Spreadsheets here.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals..

Tags: Google Apps, Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Atmosphere, Docs & Spreadsheets

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