Google Spreadsheets are in the "Sneak Peek" phase. The two big questions seem to be a) why would anyone want to...
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use a potentially non-secure spreadsheet with limited capabilities, and b) how will we refer to the primitive era before online spreadsheets, which revolutionized life as we know it? (Which, of course, leads to a related question: What kind of silver jumpsuit is most comfortable when you're crunching numbers?)
It would be fun to debate, and I'm sure some enthusiasts on both sides are probably discussing the matter on Slashdot and many other sites. This article was primarily written to answer a far simpler and more practical question: How do Google Spreadsheets work? (I'll weigh in with my opinions at the end.)
What Google Spreadsheets look like
My first reaction was, "Oh, cute," and "Looks like a good design." It seems like the GUI designers stood up inside the box and looked at what was outside. The design is not revolutionary, but it avoids, at the least, a retread of the client-based spreadsheet GUI. The designers used different types of widgets to provide the navigation and options. There are three tabs for different types of functions: drop down buttons for key features like Saving, buttons for standard toolbar features (Cut, Copy and Paste) and a few plain old links for common features like New and Open.
Creating, opening and saving files
As you can see, it's pretty easy to figure out how to create or open a spreadsheet.
When you create a new file, you just get a new browser window. When you click Save, you're prompted for the name. Just type the name and click OK.
When you open a file, click Open Spreadsheet. You will get a list of all the spreadsheets you've created in Google Spreadsheets or you can browse for a file on your computer. To open a spreadsheet from your computer, click Browse, find the file, wait for it to be digested by Google and click Open Now.
You can open only .csv or .xls files. This means no .txt files, even if they are comma-separated, and you also need to save your OpenOffice.org Calc spreadsheets in Excel format before opening them in Google. Files seem to open up pretty well, retaining formatting, calculations, etc.
To save a spreadsheet online, click and hold down on the File menu and choose Save or Save As. I couldn't find a way to organize my saved online spreadsheets, so if you have 200 spreadsheets, you'd be well-advised to name them clearly.
To save a Google spreadsheet to your computer, click and hold down on the File menu and choose Download as XLS or as CSV.
When prompted, choose to save it to your computer, specify a location and click Save. I like that in Netscape and Internet Explorer, I can save it to a specific location. In Mozilla, you get no opportunity to choose; the file is saved to your desktop.
General data entry and formatting
I fiddled around and tried to enter information without reading the help file. Generally, that approach worked quite well. There's no big green checkmark or official entry field, but everything else is pretty similar. I created this spreadsheet by doing just what comes naturally (i.e., typing formulas normally).
Standard abbreviations like Ctrl B for Bold and Ctrl U for Underline worked, as expected. I used the formatting drop down icons above the work area to apply fonts, font sizes, shading, etc. Here's what those look like.
There aren't that many font selections to choose from, but for spreadsheets, that's not really the most important thing anyway.
I was pleasantly surprised that Undo worked; I got 10 undos before I stopped trying.
Calculations and formulas
This surprised me -- there were a lot more formulas than I thought there would be. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Plain old calculations work exactly the same way. Just type =(B4 – B6) / C14 , or whatever you need, like you always would. Double-click the formula when you're done to see the referenced cells.
To use a formula, click the Formulas tab; you'll see the links and other shortcuts for formulas.
Click inside the cell where you want it, then click on one of the prefab formulas, if the one you want is available. Drag your mouse over the cells to be in the formula and press Enter.
If those formulas don't do it for you, click More and you'll see a huge list. Click the one you want and you'll see the formula syntax in the cell. Then, just enter the appropriate cell references and press Enter.
Sorting is fairly limited. You can do an A-Z or Z-A search, and if you have categories, those categories get treated like data and rearranged alphabetically.
To sort, click the Sort tab, select the column to sort by and click your sort icon of preference. Here's what the results look like.
I think printing is a little weird. The interface is so nice that you'd think there'd be a print icon. Or at least something in the interface that says print. But no -- what you do is click and hold down on the File menu, then choose Get HTML.
You get a new browser window with the spreadsheet in table form. At this point, you treat it as a normal page and choose File > Print from your normal browser menu. The grid lines do print, reasonably lightly. Also, keep an eye on the number of pages you think you have. The whole page prints, so if you've got just a few cells, you'll print two pages.
Sharing and chatting
One of the angles Google is pushing in Google Spreadsheets is the collaboration aspect. This is actually a pretty snazzy feature. Sharing is limited to people who have spreadsheet accounts or to people with Google gmail accounts. But I signed myself up for two different spreadsheet accounts and it all seemed to work pretty well.
Here are the basics.You click the Show Sharing Options link at the far right, and a window appears in which you can invite people to edit or view the spreadsheets.
Click Invite People, and you see the prefab email that will be sent. You can enter your own message if you want, and just click OK. The recipients get an email with a link, although the emails I received at the alternate email address were just regular links rather than hyperlinks. I imagine Google will fix that soon.
When a recipient clicks on the link and logs into Google Spreadsheets, they get to see the spreadsheet and edit or view, depending on the invitation. All people sharing the spreadsheet get to see who's accessing the spreadsheet at that particular time.
When two or more people are sharing a spreadsheet, the Chat options show up. (Click Show Chat, if you don't see it.) It works pretty much how you'd expect; type something in the bottom, and everyone sharing the spreadsheet sees it show up in the top.
Performance isn't perfect, yet. Opening and saving spreadsheets is a bit slow, and I received a couple of server error messages asking me to try again later. I had a few spreadsheets open in Firefox and it hung, but I could open up the same spreadsheet in another browser. Again, I'm assuming this will be fixed later after the "Sneak Peek" phase.
I have no way of testing how secure the spreadsheets are, but when I tried to access the URL of a spreadsheet that I hadn't been invited to see, a polite error message said I didn't have access. To learn more about what Google says about security, go to this site.
What possible functions do Google Spreadsheets serve?
Here's what I think. They're not useful for normal professional tasks at this point. I'm not a corporate turbo spreadsheet user, but my impression through training and reading is that they really push their tools. The software doesn't have enough features, even with the collaboration tools. I imagine that, given Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the host of other security issues, a lot of corporations would say they don't need no stinkin' online spreadsheets. If you want a free spreadsheet for professional use, use OpenOffice.org.
But it all depends on what you need. Many people just need a few spreadsheet features, and I think Google has done a good job of picking which features to include. If you're traveling, if you're at school or a friend's house, a library or anywhere you don't have your own computer with you, Google Spreadsheets and their ilk are great. If you're a small organization without much IT support and intense spreadsheet needs, again, free online spreadsheets are great. If someone emailed you a spreadsheet and, for whatever reason no spreadsheet software is installed on your computer, free online spreadsheets are darned useful. If your grandparents refuse to or can't figure out how to install OpenOffice.org, point them to Google spreadsheets. (Not now, though -- Sneak Peek is definitely a solid beta phase.)
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Solveig Haugland has worked as an instructor, course developer, author and technical writer in the high-tech industry for 15 years, for employers including Microsoft Great Plains, Sun Microsystems,and BEA. Currently, Solveig is a StarOffice and OpenOffice.org instructor, author, and freelance technical writer. She is also co-author, with Floyd Jones, of three books: Staroffice 5.2 Companion, Staroffice 6.0 Office Suite Companion and OpenOffice.Org 1.0 Resource Kit, published by Prentice Hall PTR. Her fourth book, on OpenOffice.org 2.0, is coming this summer. For more tips on working in OpenOffice, visit Solveig's OpenOffice blog.