Google Speeds Up Docs For Collaboration

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Google has revised Google Docs to improve and speed up the document, drawing and spreadsheet editors in Docs

Google said it has rewritten the code for Google Docs, using a new JavaScript layout engine and leaning heavily on HTML5 to improve and speed up the document, drawing and spreadsheet editors in Docs.

The company, which unveiled the upgrades at the company’s Atmosphere cloud computing event at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters on 12 April, is trying to make Docs more suitable for today’s office workers, many of whom grew up working with Microsoft Office or IBM Lotus applications, which reside on users’ computers.

Google aims to provide team collaboration where knowledge workers can effortlessly exchange word processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents whether they were created in the cloud in Google Docs, or Office or Lotus Notes.

Today’s knowledge workers create documents and print out or e-mail them to co-workers to edit. These colleagues then e-mail them back to the document creator, who adds more changes, Anil Sabharwal, the enterprise product manager for Google Docs, told eWEEK.

This back-and-forth approach, popularised by Microsoft Office, is cumbersome and inefficient in an era where the real-time Web quickly recognises and renders revisions.

While Google Docs has leveraged HTML to play well with Web browsers, not all of the features Google’s customers wanted could be satisfied by the current HTLM5 specification.

To enable such functionality as floating images, which lets users move an image around in a document and have the text wrap around it without corrupting the document’s fidelity, Google created its own JavaScript layout engine.

In addition to floating images, the new engine fuels real-time editing by as many as 50 simultaneous users in each drawing, spreadsheet and presentation document. Previously, changes users made to Docs sat in a queue waiting to be added.

Now users will see changes made character by character as other participants edit documents. The sidebar chat feature from Google Docs’ spreadsheets has been added to Google word processing documents so users can discuss documents they are working on.

Sabharwal said Google’s acquisition of DocVerse brought some of the new capabilities to Docs. Specifically, users can group-edit Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word documents, which are created offline and stored locally on users’ desktops, and render those changes online in the cloud through Docs.

Google also boosted import and export fidelity between Google Apps and Microsoft Office. Users who want to add a Microsoft Word document or Microsoft Excel spreadsheet can do so without losing any document data. Also, Google bolstered its document upload feature to ensure that documents retain their original structure.

The JavaScript layout engine also helped Google boost document formatting, providing better import/export fidelity, a revamped comment system, real margins and tab stops, and improved image layout in documents.

Docs’ spreadsheets load faster and now boast a formula bar for cell editing, auto-complete, drag and drop columns, and easier navigation. Google, which last year allowed Docs users to embed drawings in spreadsheets, documents and presentations, also introduced a drawings editor to let multiple users collaborate in real time on flow charts, designs and diagrams. This provides a more graphically pleasing way for teams to work together.

The drawings editor will be available later today, with preview versions of spreadsheets and documents rolling out to everyone over the next few days.
These new tools are opt in. Google recommends users click “New version” at the top of any spreadsheet or go to the Document Settings page and select New version of Google documents to try them out.

While Google giveth a lot in this new, HTML5-based Docs approach, it also taketh away functionality. Google is temporarily removing offline support for Docs beginning on 3 May. Sabharwal noted this Gears shutdown will affect a very “small, small” percentage of Google Docs users.

“We believe the impact will be minimal,” Sabharwal said. “However, we do believe this is a critical part of the story and we are working diligently to bring it back and provide an improved offline experience using HTML5 and other modern browser technologies.”

Google is certainly targeting Microsoft Office and IBM Lotus Notes with this new Docs release, but it also must combat Zoho, Cisco and a litany of even more newfangled collaboration applications.

Moreover, the real-time editing capabilities of Docs make the platform an enterprise-oriented rival to Google Wave, so it’s not clear what the relationship is between Docs and Wave and whether or not a bridge needs to be built for the two platforms. Perhaps Wave will be used as an on-ramp to get more users onto Google Docs.

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