I’m not a fan of Microsoft Office, nor do I prefer Open Office, iWork, or any modern Office application for that matter. The main reason is that they try so hard to pack in new features that I don’t need while continuing to screw up the basic features I do need. I don’t feel that drafting a business letter or managing my budget is something I need to buy four hundred dollars worth of software for. Nor do I feel that I should have to fill five hundred megabytes of my hard drive. Worse still, if I don’t use the Microsoft format I run the risk of not being able to work on another computer, or vice versa. There’s not much I ask for in a word processor just four basic guidelines that I hold to any software:
- Simplicity – There’s a saying; “90% of Word users only use 10% of its features”. Should we really expect to wade through menus and dialog boxes when we only use a dozen or two functions?
- Reliability – My hatred of Office apps and MS Word in particular began when Word literally removed all formatting from one of my last college papers, hours before it was due. Let me be clear, when I say “all formatting” that includes all spaces between words. Word processing is nearly as old as personal computers. It’s a technology that should be as flawless as a calculator by now.
- Accessibility – I switch between Windows and Linux every day. Occasionally, I use a Mac. All of these operating systems have Office software that works best. MS Office is the de facto standard, but I always have to make compromises when using the Office format outside of Office.
- Affordability – Again, word processors are as old a personal computers. I think we should expect more than WordPad for free. Isn’t it time that Microsoft releases “Office Lite” for free? If they don’t wise up soon they’re going to loose out to products like OpenOffice.
In this mess of desktop software comes Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It’s the only word processor I know of that meets all of my requirements. More than that, it offers something I didn’t know I needed until I had it, and now can’t live without. With Google my documents are held in what I like to call a “null format”. This means, on any connected computer, they are instantly readable, editable, sharable, and downloadable . The last two items are key to my revelation. The pervasiveness of Microsoft Office means that more often than not I’ll encounter something that can at least read a doc or xls file. It’s in the sharing and downloading features where I can no longer use anything else.
It used to be rare that I would share a file, let alone collaborate on one. Keeping track of what word processors my friends had and emailing them the appropriate format was just too much hassle. The Mac users hated MS Office and the Windows users didn’t know there was anything else. At work we all used Office, so sending out files was easy. The pain came in playing round robin with the word dock as you edit it or worse, waiting for the shared file on the server to become available. All this is just annoying to say the least. With Google docs, my files are reduced to a url . I often share drafts of my blog posts with my friends, or share the monthly budget with my wife, which is pretty much all I do with a word processor. Things like this are essential in the business environment making MS Office seem counter-productive.
Though rare, there are cases when I’m on a computer without an Internet connection. Which brings me to my second point, downloading files. The argument I rarely see made is that Google Docs doesn’t lock you in to their service. To that end I can save in many different formats, plain text, MS Office, and pdf to name a few. Sure, MS Word can export to most formats. But this requires a bit of pre-planning on my part. If I suddenly encounter a situation where Word is nowhere in sight, my parent’s house for example, I’m stuck having to track down some utility to convert it. I may be an odd case, but I’m more likely to encounter a computer without Word than a computer without an Internet connection.
This has made Google Docs & Spreadsheets the clear winner in my book. Coming soon is the ability to work off-line which is the final missing piece. Having my documents online with a trustworthy provider has been an immense productivity boost. No more switching between MS Office and OpenOffice. No more copying files around. I think the time will come soon where everything is on the network and removable media such as DVDs and USB Keys seem as efficient as paper tape. The 90% of us that use only 10% of Office’s features can take part in that future right now. Start working in the null format and see if you realize the benefits as well.