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Why I Switched from OpenOffice to Google Docs

April 1, 2007

A few years back, I remember hearing someone talk about “online word processors,” I thought it was a silly idea, since I couldn’t imagine having to be connected to the web to use an application. Well times change, and in the days of broadband and web-based applications, it seems like the online word processor’s day has come.

Before reading any more of this column, please note that this is not a review of Google Docs . These are just some observations based on my own use here and there. So please take it all with a grain of salt.

OpenOffice and AbiWord
I’m getting ahead of myself though. For the last few years, my two main word processors have been AbiWord and OpenOffice.org’s [1] Writer. AbiWord, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a lightweight and open-source word processor. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. AbiWord isn’t as full-featured (or as some would say “bloated”) as OpenOffice.org’s word processor, but for most tasks AbiWord does quite well. As much as I like AbiWord though, I’ve always found it a good idea to keep OpenOffice.org on my systems as well. It’s nice to have a spreadsheet application, as well as word processing, and OpenOffice.org bundles that all together very well. Continued…

You might be wondering something…what about Microsoft Word? Or the rest of Microsoft Office, for that matter. Well, frankly, I haven’t used it in years. I haven’t had any need to since OpenOffice.org and AbiWord met my needs. It’s not a question of being cheap and not wanting to pay for the software license. Ziff Davis, my employer, would pick up the tab if I needed a copy of Microsoft Office, as it’s part of our IT infrastructure.

But why bother? I don’t need features like grammar checking, autocorrect, mail merge, advanced macros, or templates. Microsoft Office—for my needs—would be a bloated waste of hard disk space and wouldn’t be something I’d ever bother to use. I do use the web-based version of Microsoft Outlook, since that’s my company’s official email application and I obviously have to deal with work email. But, frankly, I loathe it and I use Gmail whenever possible. So much for Microsoft Office, if you need it and like it, more power to you but I’ll pass on it.

Why did I pick Google Docs instead of the , , or online word processors? Well, as I said earlier, I’m a lazy geek. I went the path of least resistance. Since I already had a Gmail account with Google, I figured I might as well just try their product first. And now I’m hooked. I might try other products later on at some point (particularly if I ever write a real review of them) but for right now, I’m content with Google Docs. And that’s no reflection on Zoho, Thinkfree, or any other online application; I just can’t be bothered signing up or otherwise going out of my way to try them.

Why Bother With an Online Application?
Getting back to Google’s word processing application…one of the things I hate is that I have documents all over the place. I have a Linux box, a Windows box, and two Macs (an aging but venerable Power Mac that I’m typing this column on) and my beloved PowerBook. I tend to hop from system to system depending on what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m writing a Linux review, sometimes I’m playing a game on the Windows box, sometimes I’m using the PowerBook in the kitchen, and so on. I just never know which machine I’m going to be on at a particular moment. Well, it gets very frustrating trying to remember which machine has which documents on it.

Oh sure, could I set up a central server and then store all the documents there and then network them all together. Yeah but why bother? I really don’t need a server, nor do I want to bother setting up sharing and the rest of it on any of my systems. So what’s a lazy geek to do then? Enter Google Docs [2], Google’s new online word processor. A while back Google acquired a product called from a company called Upstartle. Well they fine-tuned that product and released it as a product called Google Docs (quite a creative name eh?).

Like most of its products, Google has done a pretty good job making Google Docs highly functional and pretty darned easy to use. The interface isn’t cluttered (so far) by nasty feature-creep or bombastic overkill, and Google Docs offers some pretty good core word processing functionality. No, it doesn’t compete with OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Word on a feature by feature basis, but that’s a good thing! I don’t need all that stuff and I don’t want it. If Google goes down that road and morphs Google Docs into some sort of Microsoft Word clone, I’ll stop using the service.

Here’s some of the stuff I like about Google Docs:

It’s easy to create new docs, rename them, save them to the Google Docs service or save them locally.

I can easily choose between saving in Microsoft Word format, HTML, RTF, OpenOffice, or PDF format.

I can get a word count quickly (remember when you had to hunt for it in OpenOffice? Yes it’s been fixed since then, but to this day I loathe any kind of word processor that makes me look for the word count feature).

The revisions tab makes it super duper easy and fast to go back in time and change/fix/edit stuff or just see where I went wrong.

All of my docs are on the server and available on any machine I choose to log in from! No more wondering where I left my latest column or if I saved something important on a test machine and then lost it because I reformatted the hard disk to install another OS for testing (yes I’m somewhat absent-minded sometimes).

One thing I don’t like about Google Docs is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to save a document in .txt format. I suppose this is probably something they can easily add in later and I hope they do.

Stuff I don’t use in Google Docs:

The collaboration stuff. I like the idea of this but I haven’t had any practical use for it. Is anybody out there using it? If so, how well has it worked for you?

The Publish feature. I’m not much of a blogger these days so publishing my docs to a blog really isn’t useful to me, but I do like the idea of being able to do it. And Google seems to have offered the option of publishing to more than just their blogging service, so kudos to them for that.

One Last Thing…
Well I suppose I’m actually a bit of a liar…as much as I love Google Docs, old habits die hard. I’ve decided to keep AbiWord and OpenOffice on my computers just in case I want or need them. Hey, why not? They’re free as well and you can never really have too many choices when it comes to word processing if you’re a writer. The more the merrier.

For the most part though, I’ll be doing most of my writing via Google Docs.

What’s your take on Google Docs? Are you using it or are you using another online word processing service? Tell me in the comments below.


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