If there's one major disadvantage Google has in the documents war against Microsoft, it's that Microsoft products are so widely used that Google has to offer near-perfect compatibility with Microsoft Word when it comes to maintaining the format of documents moved from Word to Docs.
Google Docs, I'd wager to guess, is plenty good enough for most people who want to create and share documents online. As someone who uses both Microsoft Word 2010 and Docs, I haven't run into compatibility problems moving documents from Microsoft to Google. In fact, I often have problems keeping the formatting of text consistent throughout a Microsoft document in Office 2010, whereas I don't seem to have that issue with Google Docs.
But I'm a run-of-the-mill user, just writing plain text blog posts and articles. What about users who create complicated documents with both text and graphics? Microsoft claims Google can't maintain the formatting of complicated documents, while Microsoft's own cloud-based word processor in Office Web Apps can.
With Office 365 launching soon, Microsoft is promoting a site that shows how one document keeps its formatting when moved from Microsoft Word to the Word Web App, and loses much of the formatting and images when moving to Google Docs.
I can just visualize Microsoft officials testing out hundreds of document layouts on both services to find out which one looks the worst on Google Docs. But it's still worth taking a look at for people who need the ability to move documents from their desktops to a cloud service.
Here is the top part of the sample document on Google Docs:
And now in Microsoft Word Web App:
As you can see, there's a pretty big difference.
Microsoft has been making this comparison for a while. They demoed a version of it for me last year in a conference call, and now are trying to bring it to a wider audience. Microsoft official Tony Tai highlights the comparison in a blog post last week.
Not that I feel sorry for the moneybags at Google (or Microsoft), but in a way this seems unfair to Microsoft competitors. It's the classic case of a monopoly's products being so widely used that they become a de facto standard. Competitors' products have to be not only better, and cheaper, but also comply with the standards pushed out by the incumbent.
But, hey, that's life and life isn't fair. Google wants to make it easy for business users to switch from Microsoft, and therefore must do a better job ensuring compatibility. Google Apps creator Rajen Sheth agreed with this point last year, and admitted that there are still gaps in Docs compatibility with Word when I interviewed him at Google headquarters in Mountain View.
From my perspective as a user, I'd like a way to seamlessly integrate the word processor on my computer (and the documents in my hard drive) with Google Docs. Since I use Microsoft Word on my Windows computer at work and LibreOffice at home on my Mac, I'd like a better way to sync between the two computers and Docs. Google has talked about providing offline access to Docs, which would be great, but it hasn't happened yet.
So, there are still reasons to use both Microsoft Word and Google Docs. For one, even Microsoft says Office Web Apps isn't designed for heavy editing, so switching from Microsoft Word to Word Web App completely isn't recommended.
There are add-ins you can use to sync Word with online services. Google provides one called Cloud Connect. I installed it a couple of months ago but quickly got rid of it because it creates a giant, obnoxious toolbar that can't be minimized, basically forcing you to look at a Google ad while you work.
I now have OffiSync running, which also syncs Word to Google Docs. But it doesn't always work and it seems to, um, "enhance" the amount of time it takes for Microsoft Word to start up, which was already considerable. And at the risk of making myself sound inept, I can't even figure out how to uninstall the extension. But in any case, the option is there, and there are also tools for OpenOffice users to sync with Google Docs.
The reasons I find Docs to be so valuable are the automatic save capability (every time you type, it saves); the simple-to-use interface; and the ability to check documents on any device, including my Android phone and iPad. There are some nifty applications for both Android and Apple's iOS that store documents on your device for offline viewing while syncing with Docs when you're connected to the Internet. As people start creating documents on devices like the iPad, the need to maintain Microsoft Word formatting in a cloud service won't be as great.
While Google believes in 100% Web, I still want a copy of my documents on my computer. I think we're getting close to the point of seamless integration between locally running word processors and cloud-based ones. The ability to preserve formatting when moving documents from Microsoft Word to Word Web App is nice, but it's only one piece of the puzzle.
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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