Google Docs updates its interface, sort of

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Google has updated its interface for their Docs & Spreadsheets application. Besides the visual improvements, they’ve also “replaced” tags with folders, and added a “Google Suggest” function to the search box, that finds matches as you type. (Neat!)

While some may consider the move from tags back to folders a step backwards, the change is really superficial – under the hood, it’s still the same old tagging system. The only difference is how most users will interpret it.

Screenshot copyright Google, 2007

The old ways

As TechCrunch indicates, there are still many people who prefer the traditional folder model over the tagging model. Tagging is a more recent phenomenon, made popular by sites like at the growing crowd of “Web 2.0” sites. Most people are familiar with folders for organization, since it’s a feature the user would have gotten used to in using a computer’s file system. Even though tags, (or “labels”, as Google calls them) are preferred by some, including myself, clearly Google has had research indicate to them that folders would work well for more people.

However, the change to folders wasn’t really a total overhaul – as you can tell from this quote from their announcement:

Even cooler, our new folders continue to work like the tags they’ve replaced – your old tags are automatically converted to folders and documents can live in more than one folder at a time.

This is confirmed by using the new Docs & Spreadsheets – though the icons look like folders, they can be made to behave like tags. They’ve tried to make some aspects like traditional folders; for example, when you’re in folder view and you drag a file to another folder, it is “moved” to that new folder – but what’s really happened is that the first folder/tag is dropped, and replaced by the new one. (In the “All Items” view, dragging an item to a folder merely adds the item to the new folder, without removing it from other folders it was in – just like tagging)

Folders in the application do not operate in the traditional sense, since you cannot create sub-folders, at least not at present. (I got a “server error” when trying to move a folder into another one) This betrays the true nature of the folders – they’re just tags in folder’s clothing. The interface has merely been re-designed to promote a folder-centric view of tags.

This isn’t something I’m against, as since I’ve indicated I prefer tags over folders. In fact, I think that this is a good move for Google, since they can accommodate both types of users – those who prefer the old folder organization, and those who prefer organization by tags. The present system gives a good illusion of folders (albeit without sub-folder support), but can easily be made to work as a tagging system. Some have also speculated that this change could be a harbinger of things to come for Gmail. Perhaps they’re rolling out this system to see how it does with the smaller Docs & Spreadsheets crowd before moving it into big-time action with the Gmail userbase.

Pretty sights

The visual side of the interface has also been given a facelift. With this, it looks and operates more like a traditional desktop application. This contrast with Google’s approach to Gmail, and resembles more Yahoo!’s approach to their mail client. Could this be another indication of Google wanting to make interface changes to Gmail, perhaps making it more like a desktop mail client in order to compete with Yahoo! Mail better? They’ve certainly done a good job with Docs & Spreadsheets, as the interface is pretty but not overdone. Furthermore, the “Back” button functionality is not broken and drag & drop works like a charm

One improvement they could make would be taken from Gmail’s interface – allow adding of items to folders/tags on-the-fly, without having to create the folder beforehand.

Security and Privacy concerns

Docs & Spreadsheets is undoubtedly very useful for collaboration across distances, or really for any project work in general. The prospect of no longer having to physically bring files between computers using sneakernet is a compelling enough reason, and I believe most people, especially students, would use this service, so as long as they knew about it. (I still think Google has to get out more knowledge of this service)

However, I’m less excited about this service when it comes to business use. So far, companies have been reluctant to store sensitive information with third parties, and for good reason – you may just never know who has access to your data, and furthermore, the risks of data loss may not be known. For personal use, these concerns also have merit. For businesses, something like Google Apps Premier Edition, a paid service with guarantees, would probably be better. Some of their services may even allow you to host the data behind your firewall.

A competitor to Microsoft Office?

While Google Docs is a great tool, I hardly think it’s a competitor to Microsoft Office. The two are really in separate markets. So far, online word processors can’t match the functionality of desktop ones, but are still good for a lot of what you’d need to do with documents. A closer competitor to Google Docs would probably be Microsoft’s Office Live, another suite of online tools. This service also has free and paid subscriptions. The service still has some way to go before it can be considered a serious contender in the office/work productivity arena, that is, if Google ever intends it to be.

Comments for this entry are closed

But feel free to indulge in some introspective thought.