Six weeks ago, Richard Stallman condemned network applications as proprietary software. He is right, of course — not only is the source code for most network apps unavailable, but except in a few cases like Clipperz, using them means that you cede control of your data.
But if Stallman’s observations aren’t enough to stop you from using network apps, a comparison of a leading example like Google Apps with free and open source software (FOSS) such as OpenOffice.org should be. Not only does OpenOffice.org match Google Apps in convenience and availability, but, feature for feature, it leaves Google Apps writhing helplessly on its back and choking on FOSS dust.
Two years ago, when networks apps were just appearing, I hesitated to make such statements. Although network apps disappointed me in much the same way that early computer games once did, I told myself that I was only seeing proof of concepts, and that they would improve. Only, they haven’t — or, at least, not enough to matter.
If you aren’t a programmer who enjoyed network apps for their novelty and the challenge of writing them, their main claim to your attention is their convenience and accessibility from any computer with an Internet connection. To anyone still using proprietary software, these advantages may seem worthwhile, but you can get the same advantages from FOSS. In fact, if you run OpenOffice.org from a flash drive, you not only don’t need Internet, but you have a faster, more consistent response time and retain your privacy and control over your data as well.
And if you drill down to the individual apps? Then you find the same answer. Even if overlook OpenOffice.org’s database, equation editor, or drawing program, none of which Google Apps has, comparing Google Apps to OpenOffice.org is like clubbing a staked-out bunny — Google Apps is so far behind that the whole exercise seems like an exercise in pointless cruelty. Mostly, it consists of compiling a list of what Google Apps lacks.
Google Apps’ Document vs OOo Writer
According to one Sun Microsystems employee, the original StarOffice, whose code forms the basis of both OpenOffice.org and Sun’s modern StarOffice, was designed so that its developers could use it to write their documentation. The story is plausible, because OpenOffice.org’s desktop publishing features rival FrameMaker’s, making it well-suited to designing text-oriented documents.
By contrast, Google Apps’ Document interface is so painfully primitive that in many ways, you would be no worse off laying out your file with HTML tags. Just about the only advantages you have are a revision history, spell check, footnotes and basic find feature. Even some features like tables and tables of contents are supported in only the most basic forms, and, unlike in OpenOffice.org, any more complex formatting, is either time-consuming or impossible.
The one feature I’ve found that Document has that Writer lacks is the ability to look up a highlighted word. However, Writer’s Thesaurus is almost as useful as a dictionary, and extensions like EuroOffice Dictionary add any missing functionality.
Otherwise, Writer’s features allow far more options. In particular, Writer makes strong use of styles for everything from characters to pages and frames, making it a power app for those who take the time to learn it. Document, on the other hand, forces you to format manually — in other words, to do exactly what word processor experts tell you not to do.
In comparison, in Document, you are lucky to have a feature at all, much less the ability to customize it or work with it in your own way. Put Document side by side with Writer, and you’ll find that it lacks detailed document properties, fields, sections, cross-references, indexes, the ability to nest documents, insert video or audio, autocorrect, insert auto-text or manage mail merges — and these are only from a quick scan of top-level features, and do not include all the features available when you drill down in paragraph or page styles. Sometimes, it seems that there are text editors with more features than Google Apps’ Document.
Google App Spreadsheet vs OOo Calc
Google Apps’ Spreadsheet does somewhat better against OpenOffice.org’s Calc than Document does against Writer. Or, at least, Spreadsheet has a well-rounded set of functions, which many people consider the basics of a spreadsheet.
Yet even at this level, Google Apps is lacking. While help is a click away when you select a function, and functions are inserted with a summary, Spreadsheet has nothing compared to Calc’s Function Wizard, which helps you to set up a formula properly before you insert it. To make efficient use of Spreadsheet, you really need to be already familiar with the concepts with which you work. It is definitely not a tool on which to learn spreadsheet basics.
Just as importantly, Google Apps has none of the function utilities of Calc: Nothing whatsoever like Goal Seek, Solver, or Datapilot. Nor can cells be grouped for convenience.
Google Apps does allow sorting in ascending and descending order, but no other kind of sorting or filter, not even autofilters for the top of a table. Cell, formatting, too, is confined to a few features like text color and background, without any of the customization that makes a spreadsheet more easily read, such as hyphenation. Such limitations seriously hamper Spreadsheet’s use for non-numerical lists — a common use of spreadsheets that Google Apps’ designers apparently overlooked entirely.
Google Apps Presentation vs. OOo Impress
Google App’s Presentation has more templates — or themes, as it calls them — than ship with OpenOffice.org’s Impress, but Impress users can quickly nullify this advantage by a few downloads from the Internet.
Otherwise, working with Presentation is a study in limitations. You can add sound, video, and a few basic shapes to a Google Apps Presentation, and some speaker notes, and very little more. If you want master slides with reoccurring objects like headers or footers, you are alone with your ingenuity. The same goes for handouts. And you have only a few options for pre-designed layouts. Sound? A choice of slide transitions? Better forget about those, let alone tables or animation.
But probably the biggest advantage that Impress has is the fact that it shares much of its code with OpenOffice.org’s Draw application. This little fact makes Impress outstanding for diagrams, especially organizational ones. By contrast, all that Google Apps has to offer is a library of a dozen shapes, all arrows or callouts.
As for options for running a slide show — don’t even think of them if you’re working in Google Apps. Calc, needless to say at this point, has a large number, including how you want a show to run unattended, and setting up a custom slide show that only uses some of the slides you have created.
But I repeat myself
I could continue, but I would only be repeating the same refrain. Compared to OpenOffice.org, Google Apps is a sub-standard set of productivity tools. It might fare slightly better against KOffice and AbiWord and Gnumeric, two other FOSS office suites that have traditionally been less full-featured than OpenOffice.org, but not significantly so.
Similarly, you might find network apps that would far better than Google Apps, although they are less well-known. But, again, the advantage would lie with FOSS.
Which leads to one simple question: With all these politically free, feature-rich alternatives available for the download, why would anyone choose to work with Google Apps?
This is one case in which free software philosophy and pragmatism are in complete agreement. Once the novelty wears off, Google Apps is simply an inferior set of tools.