Google Spreads it On

Office software today can come with a pretty hefty price tag for a small business to consider. For quite some time Google Inc. has been offering beta versions of several Web 2.0 applications, all with varying levels of integration. It came as no surprise, really, to see Google products expand into spreadsheets, and yes, we do expect a word processor from Google at some point in the future.

While Google Spreadsheets is certainly no ‘Excel killer’, it does provide an easy way to create, import, export and share your spreadsheets online. It is the perfect example to show the focus that is being placed on collaboration in Web 2.0 services. For those of you who tend to be budget-conscious, another bonus is that Google Spreadsheets is free.

The spreadsheet is currently in beta release through Google Labs, and you need to have a Google User Account to access the program. After signing up, you’ll be added to a waiting list, and Google will e-mail you when your request to join has been accepted. To use Google Spreadsheets you need to have Internet Explorer 6 for Windows or FireFox 1.07+ for Windows, Mac and Linux.

Formatting, Layout and Functions Overview
When you first load Google Spreadsheet, it really looks like you are viewing a desktop application. Of course, you’re working in a Web browser. You start with a 100- by 25-cell spreadsheet with more than 130 spreadsheet functions from which to choose.

Number formatting options let you choose specific decimal rounding, percentage format, dollar rounding and also includes options for date display. Google limits the basic text formatting to seven font types and the ability to change background Text formatting consists of a few standard choices for color, size, and alignment.

Google Spreadsheet
Google Spreadsheet offers various font styles and colors, as well as other formatting options.
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You can easily access options for inserting or delete rows through a single click drop down menu. Google Spreadsheets offers a basic set of features to provide simple formatting options when creating or editing your spreadsheet. As long as you don’t expect to use the application to run your office, this will be enough to get the job done.

When you choose to import an existing spreadsheet you simply select “open” from the file menu and browse your hard drive for the file. Currently Google Spreadsheets offers support for .xls or .cvs imports

What Can it Do?
Using Google Spreadsheets is pretty much a hit and miss process. When creating a new file within the application, things go smoothly. We created a basic spreadsheet for an individual’s home office expenses. The formatting, layout and using the SUM function worked well. In fact, simply highlighting the cells and clicking the sum button inserts the total in the cell following the highlighted numbers.

The spreadsheet offers just the right amount of options and formatting to create something like this. When attempting to import a basic Excel spreadsheet with no macros and only basic functions, again Google Spreadsheets performs well, importing the file at lightening speed. However problems surface when trying to import a more complicated Excel file.

For this file we chose a chart that’s used to track changes in computer system memory and for online publishing purposes. Cells contain a huge amount of HTML code or URLs embedded between columns of numbers. The import was not at all successful.

In time, the file opened in Google Spreadsheets, but most of it did not translate correctly. We were left with a mess of HTML and no numbers. While trying to fix the problematic cells, Google returned this error message several times — “Oops – Sorry, a server error occurred. We’re reloading your spreadsheet now.” Unfortunately this type of error, along with “unable to connect to server” messages are most likely going to be an issue for anyone who decides to use the Google Spreadsheets while it’s in the in beta stage.

Revisiting the same file, we edited the Excel spreadsheet to remove the HTML code and most URLs before importing to Google. The import worked fine, and the formulas did import correctly, however the file was basically useless as a working file without the HTML tags and URLs.

Google Spreadsheet
Since the spreadsheet is in a beta release, don’t be surprised to see the ‘Server Disconnect Error’ pop up quite a bit.
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Keeping it simple, in terms of layout seems to be the theme here, and one that people with basic or occasional spreadsheet needs will appreciate.

Given that this is a Web service we were pleased to find that we could use many standard desktop shortcuts while editing the spreadsheet online, including: CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CRTL+V for copy and paste respectively, and CRTL+Z for the undo function.

Google handles the calculations easily and makes quick work of loading, opening and saving the spreadsheets. Of course, like any Web 2.0 service, the performance depends mainly on the speed and reliability of your Internet connection (and for the spreadsheet, on Google’s servers as well).

Collaborative Spreadsheets — The Winning Function
One feature that makes the spreadsheet service worth using is that you can share your spreadsheet with other people online. You activate the sharing feature by clicking a link on each of your opened files — then you provide the e-mail addresses of the people you want to have access. As the owner of the spreadsheet, you can provide invitees with viewing access only or viewing with editing permission.

In sharing mode, once information within a cell has been edited, those changes become visible to others. In order to see your spreadsheet online, your invitees must also have a Google account.

Multiple people editing at one time can cause confusion. To help with this, you and other editors will have a chat window, embedded in the application interface, which you can use to track changes and to communicate while editing.

Google Spreadsheet
Two people can collaborate in a text chat while editing the spreadsheet.
(Click for larger image)

Sadly Missing
Seasoned spreadsheet users will immediately notice the features missing from Google Spreadsheet. Presently Google Spreadsheets does not provide any support for macros, graphs, multiple page layouts or cross-linked spreadsheets.

It seems like Google expects you to have a level of intuition to actually find and use some features the application offers. For example to print a spreadsheet, you have to convert the spreadsheet to an HTML format. While you can do this with a few clicks, it is not particularly intuitive.

The same holds true for hyperlinks within the spreadsheet. To follow a link from your spreadsheet, you need to click the URL and hit the CRTL key at the same time to open the link in a browser window.

Detecting these features will require practice and searching through the Google Spreadsheets FAQ and the “Google-Labs-Spreadsheets” topic in Google Groups.

It’s easy to point out what’s missing from Google Spreadsheets, but remember two things. First, this product targets individuals and the SOHO crowd. Those folks typically have only a basic or occasional need to use a Spreadsheet program.

Second, Google uses its beta versions to gather feedback, and over time nearly all its services include new features and functions implemented over the course of the beta. We expect to see more features added before the final product release.

Concerns for Business Users
In using Web 2.0 applications, one thing everyone needs to understand is that while you can save or import copies of your file to your hard drive, there will always be a copy of your data online.

Many companies today use spreadsheets for tracking financials and other sensitive data — not the type of information you want to risk by using a free, online Web spreadsheet.

Unlike services provided by online storage or backup providers, you don’t get the same level of rigid security and privacy policies you might require, or that your clients might require in the case of businesses. Google collects data and uses it to generate advertising revenue, and this hasn’t changed with the introduction of Google Spreadsheets.

In addition to privacy and security concerns, small businesses also need to remember that using this type of service means that your files are accessible only when you are online — no Internet connection means no access to the files. Also Google does not offer live tech support for this product, so you’re left to e-mail or searching the official FAQ and Google Groups list for help.

In a Nutshell
Since its initial beta release in June, Google Spreadsheets has been updated to Version 1.1.4, which offers some additional basic functionality options, such as easier cut/copy/paste, as well as better cell formatting over the initial release.

Still, don’t expect Google Spreadsheets to run your office or to replace your existing spreadsheet application. It’s best suited for people who need a spreadsheet occasionally for personal, some home office or collaboration tasks. Small businesses as well as individuals interested in the service should only consider it for non-sensitive and private data.

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been writing about computers, games and technology since the early 90s. She’s also the managing editor of Webopedia.

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