Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Google's Losing The Word Processing War

Let me start with the following premise: a word processor without tabs is not a word processor.

It seems like such a simple thing, tabs. And yet tabs are really a proxy for what makes a modern word processor something more substantial than old arcane products like WordStar from a bygone era.

The world changed when WYSIWIG (What You See Is What You Get) was invented and the word processor became capable of precisely positioning each character on the screen and on paper in exactly the same way.

Without precise type control, you cannot do any of the formatting we associate with modern word processing. This includes things as simple as tabs and precise line spacing, and as sophisticated but expected as basic page layout.

Unfortunately, Google Documents is based on HTML. HTML does not allow for control over fonts and does not provide for pixel precise positioning of text. What Google is currently presenting as a word processor is in fact little more than a very poor notepad, albeit with decent collaborative functionality.

In short, HTML based text editing is lame.

The only way around this is by creating a new text editing platform based on Flash. I do not know whether Google is constitutionally capable of basing one of their cornerstone applications on Flash. But they really need to get over it. Because, as I see it, this part of their life depends on it.

By eschewing the concept of a flash based word processor, Google is leaving itself vulnerable to Adobe. Adobe has acquired, and I would imagine is now heavily investing in the first web based word processor with true pixel level type control, called BuzzWord. Adobe has better distribution than any other company on the Internet, and Adobe has the best web client technology, and adobe owns PDF. As I see it, Adobe is well poised to beat Google at being *the* web document company, just as they are *the* print document company.

This might not be so important if it weren’t so important. The stakes cant possibly be higher. The format that documents are stored on the Internet is really one of the major end games. If Google does not have a good document editor, they will not be the platform that people use to edit and store documents. For this reason, as I see it, there is nothing more important for Google outside of search than providing users a good document editing and storage platform. They aren’t even in the game right now, and as I see it, they aren’t even on the right playing field.


  1. No doubt HTML-based "rich-text" editing sucks, but I don't agree with your rationale.

    I think the call for tabs and pixel accuracy is a bit "print-centric" - if most documents will be viewed on the web and delivered in print as a primary medium, what is the point of spending a lot of dev effort on print-centric features? I suspect this is Google's logic behind their feature set as it stands.

    Of course, Adobe has a horse in this particular race outside of the needs of document authors - it's very much in Adobe's interests to promote the creation of documents that don't present well on the web and look great in PDF.

  2. Umm... I meant "*not* delivered in print as a primary medium". Doh.

  3. It's funny, I just learned about Buzzword yesterday and I was basically thinking the same thing, and here you wrote an article about it the next day.

    Anyway, I have to admit I do agree with Mark a bit. Google Docs is fine for small documents that you want to share online. I don't think it was meant for serious typists that actually publish things. I really doubt any journalist or novel author would use Google Docs. I don't think that's the point of the application. Seriously, if you needed the features that bad, you'd buy Microsoft Office.

    However, it is starting to show that Google does really want to compete with Microsoft, especially after they made Docs work offline with Gears. But I don't think they are competing in the same area. Micfosot Word's strength is in printing, while the strength of Google Docs lies in collaboration. So you're right, Google isn't on the playing field; they're on the one right across the street.

    That being said, I have great expectations for Buzzword. It basically combines the features (and print-centric-ness) of MS Office and the collaboration and sharing features of Google Docs into a tight little app with an amazing interface. I very strongly believe that once it is released for AIR, it will be a huge competitor to Microsoft Word.

  4. Google Documents is the perfect tool for people who don't have time to spend all day screwing up the formatting of Word documents. With a single click documents are uploaded and completely screwed up! Some of the screwiness is even completely unscrewable, which I could never do even if I did have all day to screw things up. Thanks, Google Documents!

  5. Try turning in anything from a high school term paper to a masters thesis using only Google Docs. Good enough for collaboration does not make it a substitute for Word. Five spaces does not equal one tab. I use Google Docs extensively, constantly, through conception till just prior to turning in the final product. Then I import it into Word and clean it up so it isn't thrown out by publishers and professors whose acceptance of HTML limitations ranks up there with "my dog ate it." I love Google Docs, but I NEED MS Word.

  6. I'm with you 100% here. I want a straightforward, clean, functionally word processor that gives me access to my docs online. At the moment GD only does the "online" part well. Tabs are about as basic as it gets. It drives me nuts when I get Word documents from people who don't use them and have aligned, or tried to align, using spaces. Let's hope the Adobe vs Google app development battle gives us some top notch products to choose from.

  7. You're right, Google Docs isn't perfect, but it is a big step in the right direction.

    CT has a great point about working in Google Docs and then exporting to Word to finalize the document. But to be honest, there were maybe two or three times the entire last year that I needed to turn in assignment or proposal in paper form that needed to be formatted well; and even in those cases I exported to PDF and the formatting looked great.

    The biggest draw to Google Docs is the collaboration. Although I have used BuzzWord, and it has better formatting, there is no way that I am going to get everyone I need to share docs with to get an Adobe ID. Almost everyone I will be sharing docs with already has a GoogleID, and now with the entire university moving to gmail, I will easily be able to share with everyone.

    For my use, the collaboration reward far exceeds my need for a little better formatting. I can't remember the last time I used a Microsoft Office program for my personal, school, or club documents.

  8. I agree with most of your comments about Tabs...but you're a retard for suggesting Adobe Flash as a good replacement.

  9. Why don't use Wordz instead: http://www.cloudforces.com/office/Wordz.xbap

  10. Honestly, it's a bit silly to suggest that it's unreasonable to ask that we be able to put a tab in a document. This is about as basic as a carriage return/new line.

    It's possible that the first prototype manual typewriter didnt' have it, but other than that everything since the telegraph key has had tabs.

  11. 100% on target. Bouncing between a Linux OS running google docs (home) and MS Word Mac (office), and sharing files with colleagues, I can't ever get smooth transition. I lose time reformatting after Google Docs turns my tabs into spaces -- try importing the references section of a scientific journal manuscript in Docs (ouch!) -- Anyway, at this point Docs is more of an entry gimmick for students or hobbyists than serious professions. This is too bad, because the upload, store, and share capacity is a real advantage,


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