Google released an official Google Docs app for Android devices today, and while the app is better than the Docs website for mobile browsers it does not provide the long-awaited offline access and editing.
After downloading the app for my Motorola Droid, I can see that the home screen interface is more stripped-down than the mobile browser edition and better organized, with icons for documents, images and collections. But the documents themselves look exactly the same as they do in the Android browser.
The app does seem to load faster than the browser version, and has some extra features but the release of the app would have been a good opportunity for Google to start providing offline access to documents. Some Android applications not made by Google already do this, allowing you to view and edit offline and then sync documents with the Google Docs server when your Internet connection is restored.
A Google spokesperson I talked with said the company still plans to restore offline access to Google Docs for the destkop browser later this year, but has no comment on offline access for phones. Google used to offer offline access but killed the feature last year to pave the way for an improved version that still hasn't seen the light of day. Offline access is likely to come back after Chrome OS laptops start hitting store shelves in mid-2011.
Android expert JR Raphael reports on Twitter that the new Docs app "looks and runs just fine on a tablet" but doesn't appear to have any optimizations specifically for the Android Honeycomb tablet OS. The Docs app, meanwhile, is only for Android users. iPhone and iPad owners are still stuck with the mobile site, which really is fine as long as you have an Internet connection.
In the long run, I think many Google Docs users would like offline access for computers, mobile phones and tablets along with better support for Microsoft Word documents and syncing tools to keep Word and OpenOffice files saved locally and on the Web. There are third-party tools to accomplish this today, but Google should be able to improve upon them.
Google should also move quickly toward parity between Android and iOS devices. Although the iPad is outselling Android tablets, Google benefits as long as Apple users download Google software. Google recognizes this, as evidenced by the fact that it has created several iPad apps for search, Google Books and Google Earth.
Google announced the new Android Docs app in a blog post by software engineer Reuben Kan. The app makes it easy to share documents with contacts on your phone, one advantage over the mobile site. "The Docs app also allows you to upload content from your phone and open documents directly from Gmail," Kan continues. "You can also add a widget to your home screen for easy access to three core tasks: jumping to your starred documents, taking a photo to upload, or creating a new document with one tap."
Kan's favorite feature is turning photos with text into editable documents by using the phone's camera and optical character recognition technology in Google Docs. It won't recognize handwriting and some types of fonts but "does a pretty good job capturing unformatted text in English," Kan said.
These are some cool new features, and Kan promised "it will get better over time."
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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