TL;DR Google Docs are very good for casual, not to long documents, which you do not intend to print out or where formatting is no primer. Collaborating with MS Word and Google Cloud Connect is also handy, as long as you have no fancy tables, headings, footers or many graphics. For bigger documents and workers using MACs, Microsoft Skydrive rocks.
I happen to work in academia and most of our projects are understaffed and sometimes they lag behind schedule. In order to profit of economies of scale, to get our job done when things become hairy, our boss throws more personnel at the projects. This works well, as long as those human resources (read: my colleagues) can collaboratively work on documents. Dealing with documents is the daily bread-and-butter job description of a post-doc these days.
My present project is to evaluate the implementation of the Vienna Open Data strategy. This involves creating a written deliverable which should be profound in content and visually appealing. All my colleagues are big fans of Google Docs and so am I, but I ruled out working with Google Docs on this project pretty early.
Google Docs is wonderful at quickly drafting content together with others you may have never seen before. Many people have a Google account these days and it is widely accepted, even at the CxO layer. You should think of using headings and bullets as a mean to logically structure your text, not as a mean to make it visually appealing.
In a previous attempt we tried first finishing the text in Google Docs and for the hands-on experience export to MS Word (or Open/LibreOffice) – and bitterly failed. Just to many formatting can be done wrong which requires tedious re-formatting in MS Word. If this task has to be perfomed by someone who is not the best at templates – forget it.
So this time we started with Word, had our layout ready and kept an eye to stick to a handful of templates to quickly make some last-minute layout changes. To collaboratively work on our document we all use the Google Cloud Connector.
We are all on Windows 7 and MS Office Enterprise 2010 – that’s IT policy and this setup receives all the love by our IT department. This happened to work out pretty well until we reached around 80 pages, inserted some larger images, tables, headings and footers.
MS Word for a long time has had a bad reputation for dealing with big documents but – let’s be honest, those problems are (at least in my experience) all gone since Windows Office 2010. As our document started to exceed 5Mbs, the sync upload to Google started to get dog slow, incorporating changes from other users took forever but, worst of all, our document (THE DOCUMENT) started to suffer from bit rot. First, graphics where duplicated, then all gone; Editing of tables got lost; The formatting of headings and footnotes changed from one time to the other.
Keeping track of all these annoyances was a no go; We had to stick to tight deadline and juggle 50+ side comments between dislocated co-workers is already challenging enough. (BTW. when using Google Cloud Connect, these comments can not appear in the usual balloon style as a break out, but you have to enable them in a more condensed view natively provided by MS Word, yet which invites you to forget about them)
We had to change our Workflow. What has happened? Google Cloud connect works by recording local changes using the revision functionality of MS Office and pooling Google Drive in the background. Whenever others make changes, the user gets a notification and when you save, your work is first merged with those changes made by others before the whole document is being uploaded to Google Drive as a new version (and that’s the reason why comments can not appear as balloon break-outs as the background- track changes system used by Cloud Connect would badly interfere) Using the track changes system for collaborative editing has some glitches. First, some revisions in Word are simply not recorded as such, like removing a cell in a table; Word even tells you so. The next thing is, what happens, if two persons change text in the same paragraph?
That was when we discovered Skydrive. Well, that’s not entierly true. We tried MS Sharepoint Services and Office 365 and where less than pleased. Tons of tools for no obvious reason, a messaging system (Lync) which refused to integrate with anything else we used – all baloney, folks at Microsoft.
But Skydrive, after the I CAN HAZ TILES redesign, is different. We uploaded our (re-worked and reshaped document; After all, no text was lost during the Google Cloud Connect high-ride) document, my colleagues told me their Windows Live ID, signed into their Live Accounts and choose the document for editing with MS Word option. After downloading, MS Office Word asked for the Windows Live ID to do the background syncing. We were back online – and everything worked! Uploading is fast, not entirely snappy but much faster than with Google Cloud Connect. All formatting, (even complex one in the eyes of a casual user) was retained between syncs. The most visual difference in MS Word after this Skydrive connect, is locking of paragraphs. No other user can edit the same paragraph at the same time, which is good. And if we wouldn’t use comments, we would even be able to edit in browser. Microsoft Office Web Apps started late, but MS is still a document office 😉 And, to much applause for some of our fellow renegades, it even works out of the box with MAC Office:2011.
So, all good, MS wins, Google looses? Not entirely. First, there seem to be many more users outside using some sort if Google service. For them, Google Docs and Google Drive feels natural, receiving a Skydrive invitation may be strange for some.
Using the skydrive solution, it is not entierly obvious what happens if you loose connectivety. We tried it, MS Word warns you and you are still able to save changes, which will be alter synced back after re-connect. But it is not clear where these changes are saved in between and Explorer only display a dubious new net location which can not be browsed.
These are the important steps you have to keep in mind when you do the switch to Skydrive:
- In Google Drive, set all other users but a single one to viewing only. Only one person must be allowed to edit the document.
- This person must prepare the document for switching to Skydrive, that is incorporating all changes of others and do a final upload.
- Save all changes, quit Word.
- Browser Google Drive and download a fresh copy of the previously uploaded document, open it. Both MS Word and Google Cloud connect will complain, that the document is read only (a MS Windows security feature). Don’t enable edit mode now! First, set the Google Cloud Connect plug-in to manual sync mode.
- Now enable edit mode. Use the Google Cloud Connect plug-in to REMOVE the link to Google Drive, save your changes. Your document will NOT be synced with Google Drive any longer.
- Upload to Skydrive and inform your collaborators; Start collaboratively working with them.