A plea for a better Google Docs

Google Docs (s goog) users unite! Most of us who work with Google’s online suite of productivity applications have or will at some point get frustrated with Google Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations et al. After polling coworkers and GigaOM readers recently, and going over the responses, it’s clear the product we know and like could be so much better (and useful!) with more attention from its creator. Herewith is our manifesto:
WHEREAS Google Docs is a free service that is convenient, a practical necessity in online collaboration and widely used;
WHEREAS the service can also be unreliable, unpredictable and capable of inducing keyboard-mashing fits of frustration;
WE PROPOSE taking into account the requests of some of the most avid and vocal users. As suggested by GigaOM readers over the last few weeks, we ask for:
  • Better folder permissions management
  • The ability to insert cut cells
  • Better selection of functions in Spreadsheets like what you’d find in Microsoft Excel (s msft)
  • The ability to toggle between rows and columns
  • Multiple criteria for sorting spreadsheets
  • Scheduled backups
  • Reliable sharing
  • Improved drag-and-drop functionality
  • Fewer menus and toolbars and a larger viewing pane in the browser
  • Better document navigation
  • Automatic paragraph numbering
  • The ability to view in outline-only format
  • Editable style sheets
  • The ability to insert shape options
  • No limits on importing data
  • Better integration with desktop applications
  • Faster overall performance, especially when importing complex spreadsheets
  • And please, please above all: play well with Powerpoint.

OK, OK, so maybe we’re being a little demanding for users of a free service. But it’s only because we use Google Docs so often and it’s such an ingrained part of our work days that we want it to fit more smoothly into our work flows. While these are some specific requests from readers and staff, there are larger issues which probably need to change before any of the particular complaints above are addressed.
As Steve K told us in his plea for simplicity:

“Google has the tools to remake FileMaker and have the results pop out on various pages to be shared in different ways without a degree in computer science to set it up. There’s my wish.”

This is a theme in Google products: They sometimes come off as being made by engineers for engineers. They might have that gee-whiz factor for the more technically minded, but for regular people just trying to get work done and who don’t want or have time to figure out the best workarounds and shortcuts, it would be much appreciated if all the features in Google Docs were accessible and easy to find and understand.
The second issue also goes to the core of Google, which is hands-off by nature. As GigaOM commenter John put it:

“For me the difficulty is trying to understand how serious they are about any of their technologies beyond search. I am working with the app scripting stuff and its pretty unclear if it is really under development and/or actually being supported. Compared to the alternatives it seems like things happen when they get around to it. Most of their technologies seem to have a half-life of a year or less. I am constantly asking myself if its [sic] really worth investing my time when its [sic] likely to be “retired” at any moment.”

It’s true that productivity apps online are very clearly not Google’s primary business. But as it continues to sell its Google Apps suite, which includes Google Docs, to giant enterprises and public agencies, it seems like it should pay attention to the functionality and reliability of Docs and providing better support. Developers also gripe that Google is really not all that into its developer tools.
And though Google has in recent years been all over the map with its online initiatives, there are hopeful signs they’re beginning to focus attention and resources: CEO Larry Page is cleaning house and getting rid of failed projects like Google Wave and other extracurricular initiatives. This could be good news for Docs users if it means increased focus on well-liked and heavily used products.
For more about the future of online collaboration tools and the changing nature of the workplace, be sure to get a ticket to our Net:Work conference on Dec. 8 in San Francisco.