Friday, December 23, 2011

Part 9, Free and cheap software for the SOHO office.

The Mahlerian World of Google.

Earlier, we discussed the pros and cons of cloud computing for the home and small office. We will later look at Zoho and Microsoft’s online offerings, but today, we Google.

In our musical and dramatic representations of software companies, we earlier gave Microsoft the role of Wotan, the King of the Gods in Der Ring des Nibelungen for its need for world domination. In another article, we cast Microsoft as Falstaff in the opera of the same name because of its tendency to gobble up computer resources and tech companies. If there is any company which can rival Microsoft for world domination, it’s probably Google, which I think of in Mahlerian terms. So I give Google both vocal roles in Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the ultimate singer + big band combination, which requires lusty voices and full orchestra.

However, in memory of Google Labs, now being dismantled by Google, I dedicate a full-throated performance of “The Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, as reward for all their good work in hammering out experimental apps.

Google offers a wide range of software applications and services for individuals and businesses and continues to develop new projects. For the novice, Google's main weakness is that there is not a single place to see all of their offerings, although this comes close. When you create a free Gmail account and password, you also get access to other Google apps. Beginners should start at Google Docs. (You can also create a personal iGoogle home page with links to all your online tools.)

Part of the confusion is that Google has more services than just about any other entity on the web, including social media (Google+ and Orkut), YouTube, Picasa, Music, Reader, Google Maps and Earth, and Blogger. Also, Google invented and supports Android for phones and tablets, and is developing its own computer operating system, Chromium (not to be confused too much with their browser, Chrome) optimized for web applications. There are lesser known services, such as the simply named "Books" (which feels like walking into a huge library), Google Music, News and more. ​

Of course, there are a lot of services you can use for your home or small office, including:
  • Gmail
  • Google Apps (for Documents (word processing), Spreadsheets, Presentations, Form creation, and Drawing tools),
  • Docs - your online file storage area
  • Calendar - create different calendars for different uses, share some, keep others private, import and export to your heart's desire.
  • Voice - create one phone number that connects to all your phones, schedule which ones to ring when, get text messages of your voicemail, and more.
  • Sites - create your own websites
  • Translate - works with over 50 languages
  • Wallet - pay with your phone
  • Groups - you can create your own business mailing lists, chat and more
  • Talk - Internet messaging
  • Blogger - you're on it now!
Google Apps offers quite serviceable office applications. Serviceable enough that many companies and schools see Google’s Apps as a useful substitute to Microsoft Office. Google also has sharing tools to invite other people to read or edit your files. Up to 50 people can edit the same file simultaneously (which is useful in classroom situations). Those people can also use Chat to discuss their work at the same time. You can share the document with up to 200 people. Google’s apps are free for individuals

Gmail may be the most full-featured email tool online, with tools to automatically sort your mail and present you with a prioritized mailbox, and other personalization features, if you set them up. If you’ve used Outlook, you will notice that Gmail allows you to sort mail by tags, not folders, which might take a bit of getting used to. You can add several tags to a single email, so the system is actually much more flexible than Outlook. Gmail is the only web email application that has a number of add-on tools from third parties, including social media tools.

Google’s Calendar is the most popular calendar tool on the web and many other online tools will connect with it, too. Google’s Reader is probably the most popular RSS and Atom feed reader – go to almost any website, click on the RSS feed icon, and you get updates any time a new article is posted.

Google also has great online support, with lots of tutorials in written and video format. The most difficult part of using Google apps is learning what is available and experimenting with new tools as they are made available. (Not such a terrible thing.)

We’ll look a bit more at some Google Apps, concentrating on the word processing ​features because it is the most basic of apps, and bloggers (like me) use word processors all the time.

Google recently updated its Document writer tools. The number of English fonts has been expanded to 19. If you switch languages, appropriate fonts for that language show up.

Google has all the usual character formatting options. Styles are more simple than on Microsoft’s online apps, as is line spacing, but fonts are now set in points rather than HTML categories, which is a big improvement in formatting your document.

You can insert web links, equations, and pictures (with options for uploading a picture, doing a Google search, using Picasa, or looking for stock photography). You can add comments, footnotes, headers, footers, bookmarks, a table of contents, and page breaks.

Google will even translate documents into other languages. It has a new Web clipboard to exchange graphics, text, tables and more between Google Docs (click on the clipboard icon). You can create tables from scratch or copy them from a spreadsheet. You can keep the docs private or share with individuals (read only or edit) or publish to the web.

Mention should be made of Docs, the online storage area for all your files. Google advertises 1 GB of storage online, but it’s really more than that because the 1 GB doesn’t include your e-mail storage in Gmail, or your actual Google Docs. Whenever you upload a non-Google file to Docs, it does, indeed, count. But you are also given the option of translating the file into Google formats when you upload it. That 1 GB doesn’t include storage in YouTube, your photos in Picasa, or your Google+ files, so Google actually offers you much more than 1 GB.

Do you want templates? How does thousands and thousands of Google templates sound to you?

All in all, in the past year or so, Google has made some nice improvements to the Document interface, added some features, and made the entire experience a bit more like using a regular word processor. The Web clipboard is a nice new feature.

For most people, this is as much word processing as they need. For collaborating via the web, this may be as good as you get.

Is it better than Zoho or Microsoft Web Apps? I like Google’s cleaner interface compared to Microsoft. If you like the ribbon interface, Google only has 1 ribbon plus menus. For word processing, though, I prefer Zoho’s Writer, which combines both ribbons and menus.

​Some not-so-good changes: The newer version of Google Docs doesn’t let you edit HTML anymore, so Docs is not the tool to use to create and edit HTML You cannot now edit Google docs on your own computer like you could using Google Gears in the older version – Google says they’re fixing that.

Google’s Spreadsheet now includes pivot tables and has some nice formatting and table tools. Will it blow Excel out of the water? No. But it has most of the features that light spreadsheet users (like me) would need.

You can also create presentations. The Forms tool allows you to create forms for other people to fill out and then you can just import the data. Other tools include Drawings and use a new Tables application (in beta).

Ever since the creation of Google+ last summer, Google has been modernizing and unifying its interface across all its products. The changes appear to be mostly for the better (unless you just hate selecting icons instead of text).

Can you do real business with Google Apps? A study last summer  found that almost 20% of all the companies surveyed were using at least some Google applications. The largest implementations appear to be with very large corporations (of over 10,000 employees) and education (including many universities – which may be due to the fact that Google offers the service free for schools).

Do these companies stop using Microsoft Office products? Not likely. Accountants and number crunchers will still want the advanced features in Excel. Desktop publishers might prefer Word and page-layout programs. (One of the big holes in online offerings is the lack of a true desktop publishing application.)

There’s only one place that beats Google for the sheer number of different applications for online business. That’s, which we’ll look at in the next post.

Keywords: Google, Apps, applications, word processing, spreadsheet, Mahler, Verdi