Microsoft Office Alternative: Google Docs (free!)

A little while back we brought you news about how students could grab an inexpensive copy of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite of tools. However, there are Microsoft Office alternatives that have an even more attractive price point: free. Let me introduce you to my good friend; Google Docs, meet the internet. Internet Google Docs. OK now that you’ve been introduced, let’s see what Google Docs brings to this budding friendship. Note: if you already have a Gmail, or other Google account, than you already have a Google Docs account, if not, signing up is completely freegdocs

Tools

Google Docs offers the following tools:

  • Word processor
  • Presentations (like PowerPoint)
  • Spreadsheet (like Excel)
  • Forms (sort of like InfoPath)

The first three are probably pretty common to most computer users. The forth helps you create forms that you can send through email or embed in a website to collect information, and have it automatically placed into a spreadsheet for sorting and analyzing.

Aside form being completely free, Google Docs has the advantage of being a web app. What does that mean exactly? Well for one, there is no software to download or install, you interact with the program right on the web, you can access all of your data from any computer that has an internet connection. This is really convenient even if you just use it for backup. Perhaps the battery in your laptop is about to go and you need access to an important paper to print, ASAP. All of your data is stored online with Google, so even though you might not be able to boot up your computer, you can always commandeer a colleague’s or public computer, sign in, and print your document.gdocs homepageI can’t sit here and tell you that Google Docs offers 1:1 feature parity to the Microsoft Office suite. While Google Docs does offer the important functions for each tool that they offer,  they lack some of the more advanced features that you might need, particularly in the arena of special formatting — offering less customization than Microsoft Office, but I have found that unless you need particular formatting, Google Docs can do everything that you need for a basic paper. When I have come across a situation where I need some more advanced formatting, I just copy over to a more advanced free editor (more on that in another post) to do the formatting and print. This still keeps a convenient copy online in case I need to retrieve it.

Features

Among other things like conveniently storing all of your work on the web for easy access from any web connected computer, one of Google Docs most powerful points is it’s ability to share documents with others in order to collaborate on work. The cool thing about this, as opposed to sending revised attachments through email (which get’s increasingly complicated as the number of people working on one document increases) , is that when you share a document, you and everyone that you are collaborating with, are editing a single document, rather than sending around a bunch of revisions. You can actually all work on the same document in real time and watch as someone working from another computer edits and modifies content on the document.

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As a student, I’ve found this intuitive web collaboration invaluable. I recall several years ago, when doing a group presentation in school, someone would get stuck creating the entire PowerPoint on their lonesome. Part of this was because not everyone in the group may have had PowerPoint, and furthermore, collaboration over the web didn’t really exist to the extent that we know it today. So someone ended up with the responsibility of compiling all of the information into a presentation for the group, and usually bringing said presentation to school on a flash drive; the first time that the rest of the group would see the final presentation would usually be as they present it.

This sort of scenario can be totally eliminated with a tool like Google Docs which is free for anyone to use. I’ve worked on collaborative group presentations through Google Docs, and it makes a lot more sense than the old way of doing things. Each person can be working on a different slide simultaneously, or even on the same slide together at the same time. If someone makes a change that you don’t like, Google Docs keeps track of revisions, and you can roll the document back to any stage of the editing process to undo an error.  Not only does the alleviate the barrier to entry (ie: actually owning PowerPoint), but it also prevents having one group member from putting together the entire presentation alone. If a group was to user PowerPoint, and the person in charge of putting the presentation together was absent the day of the presentation; the rest of the group would be out of luck with no backup plan. With Google Docs, anyone who the document is shared with can log on to a computer and pull up the presentation which displays right inside of a browser.

If you are an iPhone or iPod Touch (or Android based-device) user, Google Docs also offers a mobile web app version of Google Docs that is designed specifically for your device. Google Docs for mobile allows you to do some basic spreadsheet editing, and while you can’t edit text documents, forms, or presentations, you can view them. I’ve found that pulling up a presentation on my iPhone while giving the presentation itself through the projector, acts as a great virtual flash card so that you don’t need to look away from your audience to see what is on the current slide, and you can even check the upcoming slide before you go forward during the actual presentation. photo

Making the Switch

It might seem tough to jump to a new office suite, but if the features are compelling and it does everything that you need, it can be done. You can upload pretty much any existing MS Office file to Google Docs (corresponding to the tools that they offer) and it will adopt them as if they were its own. This makes a transition to Google Docs more smooth, though there are occasionally some formatting discrepancies when you upload an MS Office file, so your mileage may vary.

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