Weekend Project: iPad Productivity in the Cloud

As a heavy user of Google Docs (s goog), both for work and personal activities, I was initially disappointed to see a lack of iPad (s aapl) support for the cloud-based productivity suite. Given the connectivity options of Wi-Fi or 3G, the large but portable display of the Apple’s device appears perfectly suited for light editing of Google Docs. Unfortunately, Google has been slow to add edit capabilities in mobile browsers, and those it has added are fairly limited.

So not long after my iPad arrived, I began my search for a Google Docs editor — after all, there’s an app for that, right? As a matter of fact, there is. I stumbled across an app called Office2 Pro and although the software had some initial shortcomings, it indeed allows for Google Docs editing directly on an iPad, and with recent updates, is a solid tool. Using it, I can connect to Google Docs via both my work and my personal Gmail account, plus the application supports WebDAV connections for other cloud storage solutions. The software doesn’t yet allow for presentation edits, but most functionality needed for document and spreadsheet editing is there, including complex document formatting and spreadsheet formulas.

Even with my newfound solution, I’ve still run into limitations. Most notably is when someone wants to send me a document. Google Docs used to offer an upload-by-email feature, but disabled it late last year. Luckily, Office2 Pro now supports the opening of email attachments on the iPad — tapping a spreadsheet attachment in email, for example, opens up Office2 Pro where I can edit the doc and save the changes right in one of my two Google Docs accounts.

Just for piece of mind — and a second backup copy — I’ve incorporated SugarSync for iPad into the workflow. If you’re not familiar with it, SugarSync is a cross-platform, cloud storage and synchronization service. Files on one computer are replicated up to the cloud and back down to other computers or mobile devices associated with a SugarSync account. For instance, I can create a new document file in a folder on my PC and SugarSync automatically makes a copy available in the cloud, on my Mac, and even on my Google Android phone, just to name a few devices.

Like Office2 Pro, SugarSync recently added support for external applications, so I can navigate to a document I have in the cloud through my SugarSync iPad app and open the document for editing directly in Office2 Pro. From there, the changes can be saved directly to Google Docs. Note that Dropbox, an offering similar to SugarSync, recently added API support for external applications — so the productivity method I’m using will likely soon work by using Dropbox in tandem with Office2 Pro, iWork or other iPad productivity apps.

Perhaps it’s overkill to have a backup for a backup, but you never know when it will come in handy. Unlike Google Docs, SugarSync does support email uploads by stripping out and saving the attachments from any message sent to a special SugarSync email address associated with your account. That feature is handy for two reasons — I can share that email address with friends or peers so they can shoot attachments to my cloud account, plus I can email edited files to SugarSync right from Office2 Pro. A quick tip if you plan to or currently use the SugarSync email upload feature: create a contact for SugarSync in your address book so you don’t have to remember the email address.

How does all this work and what are the costs involved? The solution is fairly seamless although I’d like to see to see better integration between SugarSync and third-party apps after editing a doc — emailing a file back-up to the cloud isn’t the most effective method. Obviously you’ll need a free Google Docs account. Access to SugarSync will cost you, based on how much storage you want, but a 2 GB account is free. Of course, with a starting price of $499, the iPad itself doesn’t come cheap, but Office2 Pro is only $7.99.

Armed with this toolset, I can be fairly productive with nothing more than my iPad and a web connection, although I’ve been known to “cheat” and use a folding Bluetooth keyboard for extensive edits. I’m finding that instead of carrying a netbook or notebook, I can use this set of tools and get by with just an iPad for basic content creation. Of course, some are doing far more with the iPad —  the device has already been used to run the Norwegian government and one of the folks behind our recent web site redesigns recently found himself using the iPad to run his business — you can read all about the pros and cons of that situation over at WebWorkerDaily.

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