Documents on the Online Desktop

A quick thought about the Online Desktop effort.

I've started using the spreadsheets and documents of Google Docs lately and it has really started to change the way I think about documents.

The elegant simplicity of the revision management and collaboration of editing a Google Document with a group makes forwarding around variations of a Word document (or even an ODF doc) seem ridiculous.

There are a few things I like about Google Documents that I think could be important for the free desktop.

1. Collaboration - the collaboration in Gobby and coming to AbiWord are nice (and real-time), but you still have to find each-other. A google doc just lives on the network. It doesn't have a "home" (beyond a primary account). Everyone invited has equally easy access to it.

2. Organization - rather than a fixed desktop metaphor with a set of folders (which I had been quite satisfied with until now), Google Docs organizes your documents more like email (or Gmail, I suppose) with the most recently edited/created docs at the top of the list. You can order by any other attribute as well. Documents that you're working on are always there at the top, and old stuff just falls away. I'd love it if the documents I work on on my own desktop worked this way as well. Right now, the six-month-old document on my desktop looks exactly the same as the one next to it that I created 10 minutes ago, yet they are not equal.

3. Accessibility - like my IMAP/web-based email, like my jabber accounts, like my whatever-space/book account, the docs I create, share, and edit with Google Documents are accessible from any computer with a web-browser. Given the level of connectivity we enjoy these days, it's surprising that this level of universal access to all of the information on our PCs isn't considered a basic necessity.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Google Docs is great for editing documents with limited formatting (though I wouldn't hesitate to write a book using it, and format later - especially given the export options to ODF). WYSIWYG editing can still be pretty annoying on the web and still isn't as solid as most desktop apps.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, it's not running on free software. Well, it's running on a lot of free software (*nix, apache, etc.), but the document sharing software itself is not free. This leads towards the discussion of what "free-as-in-speech services" are, and I'm really not sure.

One one hand, Google has a good API, good import/export (including free/open formats like ODF), so I can get my data in and out without too much fear of lock-in.

On the other hand, I don't have control over a key layer and important aspects of the interface. If Google Docs isn't available in my language, there's nothing I can do. If Google Docs shared my docs with my oppressive government (I'm not suggesting they do, just a hypothetical), there's nothing I can do.

Building free-software alternatives to Google Docs seems like a huge undertaking (to do as well as they have done), but I would have said the same thing about a desktop operating system 15 years ago.

Anyhow, I don't have any grand conclusions. Rather, I just wanted to share some of the impact the use of Google Documents has had on how I think about documents and the network.

If I was to take anything from this, it would be that I don't want the wall to exist between my "desktop documents" that I have created and edited on my own PC (with OpenOffice, Inkscape, etc.) to be completely segregated from any docs I create with an online service. I'm not sure how, but it seems that a document I create on my desktop should show up in my google docs and vice-versa.

Steven Garrity

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