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Understanding the Google Office

I've started playing with Google's online office tool – Docs and Spreadsheets – today, and it's certainly a nifty little product.

I'm writing this using the word processing part of the package, and must admit its simplicity is quite appealing for creating basic documents. It offers a single row of buttons to perform most of the formatting functions that people use on a day-to-day basis; it saves your work every few minutes; and even allows you to collaborate with friends and colleagues.

If you combine Docs and Spreadsheets with Google's Gmail service (which now also includes a fairly useful calendaring tool), the company has the most important aspects of an online office suite. It also has the advantage over Microsoft in that all of its products work online by design, whereas Microsoft is having to redesign its products to do the same.

But despite all the speculation that Google is ready to take Microsoft head-on in the office productivity market, Docs and Spreadsheets is far from a contender to Office 2007 (or even Office 2003, Office 2000 or Office 95, for that matter). It's not a very powerful alternative to Office and it also relies on users having access to the internet – which is fine most of the time, but web access is far from ubiquitous. To be fair, Google knows this, and has never claimed to be ready to take Microsoft's crown as the king of office tools.

So what is the purpose of Google Docs and Spreadsheets? Well, perhaps Google doesn't really care about business power users, or even the current generation of people who focus on simple word processing. The company has started targeting the product at students, claiming Docs and Spreadsheets is ideal for allowing teachers and students "to create, store and share documents and spreadsheets instantly and securely". It's another part of Google's long-term strategy to grow beyond being a search giant and to build its brand in the minds of users.

So while it's worth giving Docs and Spreadsheets a go – it's free to use with a Gmail log-in – it's little more than a toy for most of us at the moment. And until web access is ubiquitous, the reality of locating all of our applications online seems some way off.

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