Google Spreadsheets: Share Your Work

Does it make sense for a search engine company to offer an online spreadsheet application? That’s what some analysts wondered when Google introduced Google Spreadsheets. It makes a lot more sense than you’d think at first glance. Keep reading to find out why.

The very first electronic spreadsheet dates back to 1978 and was created by VisiCalc. Why would Google go for something this ancient as its next “hot new service”? There are at least two reasons. First, many people still use electronic spreadsheets, and in ways they weren’t originally intended (to-do lists, quick and dirty databases, and others). Spreadsheets serve a role in people’s personal lives and hobbies as well as at work. The second reason is that the most popular current spreadsheet application leaves users a little frustrated, in ways that Google can easily fix.

I’m talking about Microsoft’s Excel, of course. The analysts who didn’t wonder whether it made sense for Google to introduce a spreadsheet application figured the move was aimed squarely at the software giant’s relative stranglehold on office productivity applications. Actually, Google Spreadsheets is not an attack on Microsoft. Like many of Google’s services that mimic desktop applications (Gmail, Google Calendar, and a word processor which might take on new users again next month), Google Spreadsheets is more of an attack on applications and data that are bound to a single computer.

I admit, I’m not a heavy spreadsheet user, but I know people who do it for a living. So in addition to playing around with Google Spreadsheets myself, I asked our office manager, Kimberly Keyser (if you watch our “News You Can’t Use,” you know who I’m talking about) to give me her impressions of the service. Her duties require her to use spreadsheets all the time, and to share them with her boss. She was happy to help, and I was grateful for the assistance. Before I get to that, though, I’m going to take you through the interface.

Google Spreadsheets is in limited beta right now, which means you need to request an invite to use it. I did, and received an email welcoming me aboard within 24 hours. So what was the next logical thing to do? Get screenshots, of course. Please bear with me, as I found it difficult to get an entire spreadsheet into one image. (In fact, I had to split it up into two).

This is part of what you see when you first get into the application. It’s designed to be pretty intuitive, even for someone like me. Clicking on File gives you a drop-down menu with a collection of familiar options.

I’d like to draw your attention to the “Download” options, specifically “Download as .xls.” That option lets you export the spreadsheet you create in Google Spreadsheets to an Excel file. This means you can save it on your own system, neatly bypassing the complaints I’ve heard raised of “what happens if all my data is on Google and Google crashes?” As with some other Google services that store your data (Google Desktop Search comes to mind), you can still retain the data in your own system. You can also use the .csv format, and yes, you can also import spreadsheets into the application from files in both formats (more on that later).

Clicking on “Choose format” lets you choose from more than a dozen different formats for your data, including plain text, date, time, date and time, and more finance-related formats than you could shake a stick at (percentages, rounded, dollars and cents, and so on). You can use bold, italics, underlining, change fonts, and even color the text and/or the background.

Here’s the other half of the spreadsheet.

You can insert and delete rows and columns easily; just click on the appropriate button. As you can see, you can also cut, copy, paste, undo or redo any action. To give you an idea of what a nicely completed spreadsheet looks like in this application, here’s an image from Google:

If you’re an experienced spreadsheet user, you know what the tabs at the upper left are for. But if you’re not, “Sort” brings up a screen that lets you “freeze rows” in place and also lets you sort by column (A to Z or Z to A). “Formulas” brings you to a screen that lets you use various formulas on the cells of your spreadsheet; Google shows the six most popular, but there are more than 200 built in. That should satisfy most of Google’s target market for this service.

Overall, building a spreadsheet with Google Spreadsheets seems very natural and intuitive. You just click on the cells you want, and start typing. And of course, you can click on the Help link for any questions you may have.

The best feature, according to most of Google Spreadsheet’s users, is that little link in the upper right that says “share this spreadsheet.” A single spreadsheet can be shared between 10 people, and they can even edit it simultaneously. You invite others to edit your spreadsheet via email (you can also invite them to just read it), and you can chat about it using Google’s instant messenger application. Our office manager loved this feature. Her boss travels, and the two of them are constantly sharing spreadsheets. “We haven’t found an easy way to deal with this until now,” she told me. This is one area in which Microsoft’s Excel simply doesn’t measure up.

Kimberly also gave the service high marks for its access control. She also observed that it does a pretty good job when importing existing .xls or .cvs files, even with multiple pages. Furthermore, she gave it good marks for having the basic formula and sorting functions.

That said, Excel users, particularly power ones, will miss certain features. Kimberly noted that it won’t let you hide columns or rows, it doesn’t have advanced formulas, and it lacks macros. Others have noted that Google Spreadsheets does not do graphs at all (even when importing from Excel). While many users won’t need those bells and whistles, if you do find yourself using them regularly, you might want to stay with Excel.

Another disadvantage Kimberly (and others) noted was that the application lacks any way for you to darken gridlines or draw cell borders. It may sound like a little thing, but it often makes a spreadsheet more readable. Just being able to color cells and text isn’t quite enough.

While the importing feature works fairly well, Kimberly noted that exporting to Excel seemed not to work as well. Certain formats don’t translate correctly (i.e. percentages). And while we’re on the subject of importing, you will want to watch your file sizes when you move a spreadsheet from Excel to Google Spreadsheets (or even when you build one natively). Google Labs has set up usage limits. As far as importing, you’re limited to .xls and .csv files that are 400K in size originally. When you’re building spreadsheets, you’re limited to creating 100, “each of which may contain up to 20 tabs, 50,000 cells, 256 columns or 10,000 rows – whichever comes first (meaning, any one of these limits may prevent you from continuing to add data to a spreadsheet),” according to Google. To some people, that might sound roomy enough, but Kimberly said the import restriction was definitely too small. Given that this is a limited beta, I fully expect Google plans to increase the capacity of the service.

The final disadvantage I’d like to mention is the print function. Or, more precisely, “what print function?” Kimberly is quite clever at these things, and she couldn’t get the service to print the actual spreadsheet even after multiple tries. To me, there seems to be something wrong with a service that lets you share something so easily electronically but doesn’t let you share it the old-fashioned way.

Kimberly wasn’t the only one to experience this problem. Barbara Krasnoff over at InformationWeek noted that “if you choose Get HTML from the File menu, the spreadsheet will open as an HTML document in a new browser window; you can then print it as an HTML page. (You can’t, however, print parts of it, which may be a problem for folks with large spreadsheets). This is an unusually non-intuitive method for an application that is otherwise pretty straightforward.”

Whether you love or hate Google Spreadsheets, or just think it’s a good start and can use some improvement, there’s one question that everyone keeps coming back to: what’s Google getting out of this? The limited beta is free; having started out as a free service, albeit “by invitation only,” it will be difficult for Google to begin charging for it even after it’s out of beta.

So where’s the money? Kimberly wondered how Google would benefit from this service, and whether they were going to run ads. Again, she wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines.

At least one analyst hoped that this wasn’t Google’s plan. People working on spreadsheets are pretty task-oriented. An ad would be worse than out of place in such an application; it would be downright annoying. And yet…it has been said before that ads would be annoying as part of web search, or as part of email. Now we hardly notice them. Could Google be onto something?

We won’t find out for sure until Google Spreadsheets comes out of its limited beta. Will enough users love the ability to share spreadsheets? Will they love it so much that they’re willing to forgive the presence of Google ads? Or will Google find another way to monetize the application?     

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