Cool tools from Google

Originally Published in the July Issue of the Wilmington Business Journal (http://www.wilmingtonbiz.net/)

I have made some funny spelling mistakes in my life, but unfortunately none of them have led me to owning a company with market capitalization of $160 billion.

The name “Google” originated when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin misspelled “googol,” which refers to 1 followed by 100 zeros, while registering a domain name for a website. Since its creation in 1996, Google has become the dominant search tool on the Internet, and with the addition of advertising revenue, it has become an economic powerhouse. In addition to becoming an outlet for advertising sales and web search, Google allows employees to spend up to twenty percent of their weekly time working on new products. Google also has been buying successful web sites, and they now offer ancillary products that do not directly relate to online search, including an online office suite that competes with Microsoft Office.

In order to use Google’s web-based tools, you will need to have a username and password from Google, but this is easy to get if you do not already have one.

If you have ever emailed a document around to a group of people and never could figure out which is the most recent version, Google Docs (docs.google.com) may be for you. “Docs” is an online word processor, similar to Microsoft Word, that allows you to edit documents inside any web browser. Like most of Google’s web-based offerings, Docs works on all major web browsers and on both Windows and Macintosh machines. Docs has most of the features you need in a word processor, including basic formatting, tables and images. It can import Microsoft Word files and save to word, text, pdf and other formats.

Where Google Docs really shines is that it allows collaboration by multiple remote people at one time. You simply authorize each additional user and allow them to make changes via a web browser. Google Docs tracks the changes by each user and allows you to see what has changed between versions and revert to a previous version. Up to 200 people can have write access to a page and up to ten can edit at one time. Pages can also be made public and published as a web page with the updates appearing after the document is saved. Docs does not offer any of the advanced features of Microsoft Word, such as macros, envelope printing and grammar check, but it is a capable basic word processor.

Google Docs also offers a basic spreadsheet program that works similar to Microsoft Excel, but Docs lacks many of the advanced features that some users may expect such as solver, regression and pivot tables. It is fine for lists, budgets or other simple projects, but would be underpowered for most advanced Excel tasks. The charting features are less feature-packed than Excel’s, but they are adequate for basic charts. There are a couple of features in Docs that Excel does not have, such as the ability to look up information via a Google search or from Google financial (stock prices, volume, etc.). Docs spreadsheets allow the same collaboration, tracking and publishing options as the word processor, and Docs will import and save most spreadsheet formats.

One of the major limitations with a web-based application such as Docs is that you must be online to work on your documents. The geniuses at Google have recently launched Gears, which is software that allows for offline syncing with online web-based applications. Gears currently only works with Google Reader, a web-based news feed reader for RSS feeds, but you can be sure that it will be expanded to include the web-based office applications.

If all of these features make you wonder if you could ditch Microsoft Office once and for all, you may want to look at the Google Apps Suite for Enterprise (www.google.com/enterprise/). Google offers the docs and spreadsheet, combined with calendar, email, instant messaging and a web page editor all hosted on your domain name. Google Apps has two price/feature levels, free and $50 per user per year. The paid version includes advanced features such as centralized user administration, phone support, more storage (10 GB versus 2 GB per account), conference and resource scheduling, and a 99.9% uptime guarantee. If you do not need the advanced features of Word, Excel, and Outlook, the premier version of Google Apps suite could be a cost-competitive replacement for Microsoft Office.

Google has many other tools, some related to search and some not. A complete list of these tools can be found at www.google.com/options, and the experimental products can be found at labs.google.com. Two that are worth a look are Voice Search and Notebook.

Google Voice search offers a free service that searches local business listings via voice prompts. This can often replace the use of the expensive 411 directory assistance from your cell carrier. Simply call 1-800-GOOG-411 and follow the instructions for business phone numbers. You can say the name or category of business and the automated system will find the number and address for you. You can even have it send you a SMS message by saying “text message” or pressing 9, or you can say “connect me” to have your call connected directly. While this service is not always as accurate as a live operator, it is worth a try for the price.

Google Notebook (www.google.com/notebook/) allows you to track web pages and add clippings of text, images and links from web pages within your browser. It is an easy way to keep track of web-based research and information. Google Notebook can be accessed from any web browser, but plugin software installed in your web browser is required for the use of some features.

For more information on any of these web-based tools, visit the pages associated with the products or for that matter, just Google them.