Extending Office with Google Docs and Spreadsheets


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How to get more out of Microsoft Word or Excel by using the free collaboration and portability tools from Google.

Living with Google Apps and Microsoft Office

Google’s move to an online version of Office continues with the announcement that they have purchased an online presentation system. Later this year Google Docs and Spreadsheets will also include something akin to Microsoft Powerpoint.

In most discussions of Google Apps it’s considered a rival to Microsoft Office, where you have the choice of using either Google’s online offerings or Microsoft Office – not both.

We’d like to suggest a middle ground – you can use Microsoft Office plus Google Docs and Spreadsheets to fill gaps that Office alone can’t do.

This is a powerful combination, especially since Google Docs and Spreadsheets is available for free. The collaboration elements of Google’s system might not be as comprehensive as Microsoft’s alternative – but Microsoft requires a considerable investment in back-office technology (Windows Server, Sharepoint etc).

Google lets you access your documents from almost any Internet linked computer on the planet. Microsoft requires that you have Office installed on the computer for all but the simplest things.

Microsoft’s Office Live isn’t really an alternative to Google Docs and Spreadsheets since it requires Office to be installed on the local computer. It shows how Microsoft is clinging to their cash cow of Office in a changing world.

We won’t bore you with a long treatise on the ramifications of Google vs Microsoft – that’s a shifting battlefield that’s closely analysed by almost anyone with a keyboard.

As we’ve mentioned before in Office Watch, we have serious concerns about any online ‘office’ rival used on its own. Those concerns remain however that’s no reason why you can’t ‘cherry-pick’ use of Google’s service as it suits you.

From past experience we know we’ll get angry messages from both sides of this debate – mostly accusing us of being in the secret pay of either Microsoft or Google. Of course we’re not – in reading these articles you’ll see that neither company gets a glowing endorsement.

In this and coming issues of Office Watch we’re focused (as usual) on what you can do here and now. We’ll show you how to expand the power of Microsoft Office with what Google Docs and Spreadsheets can do for you. It’s not a perfect mix of technologies (we’ll highlight the pitfalls) but it works quite well and opens up new options for all Microsoft Office users.


Some uses for Google Docs and Spreadsheets


Portability

Load some documents onto Google Docs and Spreadsheets and then access them from almost any Internet access point in the world – at a friend’s house, branch office, Internet café etc.

You can alter, email or print the document without carrying a laptop.


Collaboration

This is where Google Docs and Spreadsheets really shines compared to Microsoft Office.

Instead of emailing a document around, upload it to Google Docs and Spreadsheets then make it available to others. They can, at your discretion, edit or just view the document. You can also ‘publish’ a document so that it can be viewed by anyone.

We use this to develop plans among our geographically diverse team. With emailed documents, each person can only enter their ideas in order. A Google based document can be edited by any collaborator at any time.


Backup

Strictly speaking Google Docs and Spreadsheets isn’t a backup system because the documents you upload are converted. However it’s worth keeping in mind as an option for offsite copying of content.

It’s also useful when travelling with a laptop, if something goes wrong with the machine (or it is stolen) then it’s nice to know that you can continue to work on key documents.


Google naming

Just to be clear from the outset:

‘Google Docs and Spreadsheets’ is the official name for Google’s online word-processor and spreadsheet.

‘Google Apps’ is often used as an unofficial title for the range of online applications available.

‘Google Apps for Domains’ is an extension of ‘Docs’, ‘Spreadsheets’ and ‘Gmail’ to cover an entire domain name. This is designed for small businesses, clubs and even families.

Getting Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Almost anyone can get the free ‘Docs and Spreadsheets’ service.

If you have a Gmail account gmail.com then you have ‘Docs and Spreadsheets’ access too, just login and see the links at the top of the screen.

To get a Google account, go here.

There’s no need for an invitation or mobile phone code.


Creating documents

Click on the ‘New Document’ or ‘New Spreadsheet’ links to start from scratch. Just like Office, you get a blank page which you then save. All documents are stored by Google in HTML format.


Downloading documents

Once you’ve made a document on the Google service you can download it to your computer at any time.

Go to File and choose a ‘Save As’ option, we suggest either .doc for documents or .xls for spreadsheets.

The OpenOffice formats are NOT yet supported by Microsoft Office .

Then you can open the document as usual in Office. For documents from Google to Word that’s not a problem.

But for spreadsheets it’s more complicated since both Google has functions that Excel doesn’t support or it works in a slightly different way. We’ll talk about that as part of an upcoming issue.

The alternative is to simply copy some or all of a document and paste it into your local application (Word, Wordpad or whatever). This is often faster and avoids file compatibility issues (eg you can copy from a .docx document).


Uploading documents

A Microsoft Word or Excel document can be uploaded and worked on from the Google site.

Upload a .doc or xls file by clicking on the Upload button (next to the ‘New …’ links).

The Microsoft Office 2007 formats (.docx , xlsx etc) are NOT supported by Google Docs and Spreadsheets. See our articles on the new Office formats.

Most Word formatting will appear as you might expect in Google Docs however more complex formatting won’t appear as you might like.

Excel worksheets are more problematic. Many standard functions mostly work the same however the numerical precision is higher for Google Spreadsheets than for Excel which could make a difference to the results.

More specialised functions (like those in the Excel Analysis Pack) have no equivalents in Google Spreadsheets.

Google Spreadsheets will accept Excel worksheet lists however the online system lacks the filtering power of Excel.

As with downloading, there is always the copy and paste alternative. Just copy the text from Word (or other program) and paste it into a Google Document.

 

In coming issues we’ll look at both Google Documents and then Spreadsheets in greater depth and how you can use the free service to give you options either unavailable or too pricey with Microsoft only solutions.

Send your comments, questions and experiences to [email protected]

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