How to Collaborate on Documents in Google Docs

By David F. Carr

Often in a social collaboration, it’s best to write, revise, edit, and leave comments on most documents within a browser. This is particularly true when a document has multiple authors and editors who would have to download the doc (and thus make it unavailable for others).

Google Docs is a web-based office suite provided with every Google account along with Gmail and the Google+ social network. Now part of Google Drive, the suite includes a web-based word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. The Google Drive word processor in particular, with its feature of allowing multiple authors to work on a document simultaneously, has influenced the design of Yammer Notes and other products. IBM offers IBM Docs, an enterprise equivalent of Google Docs, as another element of its collaboration platform that can be used as a companion to IBM Connections.

The Google word processor is derived from Writely, a service Google acquired in 2006 along with its parent company, Upstartle. Google developed the spreadsheet and presentation modules itself.

Google Drive is a related file sharing utility. When you upload Microsoft Office file types (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) into Google Drive, the service allows you to view or edit them in Google’s equivalent office productivity tools.

Google doesn’t claim complete functional parity with Microsoft Office documents or the ability to perfectly preserve their formatting. Microsoft has gone farther in the direction of creating feature complete web-based editors for Word and Excel. Users of SharePoint, Office 365, or Microsoft cloud services (such as SkyDrive) can use these web-based editors as an alternative to downloading and editing files.

Because Google provides application programming interfaces for integration with Google Drive, other social applications can use it as an embeddable component for document management. Bitrix24, one of the upstart collaboration vendors trying to gain more attention for itself, recently added integration with Google editing tools as an alternative to its integration with Microsoft Office. Google itself has talked about developing Google+ into a cloud-based enterprise social network that would compete with the likes of Chatter and Yammer, with Google Drive as the file management and document collaboration components of the platform. Google+ accounts that are linked to Google Apps accounts for business can already share messages and documents with only the circle of users who have accounts on the same domain.

By default, Google Drive documents are private unless the author chooses to share either viewing or editing rights with a larger audience.

Web-based document editors have some characteristics in common with wikis. For example, they have the same goal of simplifying the creation and editing of web documents. However, they are more focused on replicating the capabilities of desktop office productivity tools than creating rich sets of interlinked documents.

One of the eye-catching features of the Google Docs editor is support for real-time collaborative editing. Instead of locking a document for editing, Google Docs allows multiple people to access it and make changes at the same time, each seeing their collaborator’s changes appear as they are made, with a different-colored cursor showing where the other person is working. The collaborators can exchange text chat messages in a sidebar at the same time, or they may talk on the phone as they work together. The idea is to simulate the kind of collaboration on the draft of an article that may occur between two employees sitting side by side and taking turns at the keyboard.

Real-time collaborative editing is a tricky technical feat, requiring rapid exchange of asynchronous messages from a JavaScript app, relayed through the service to the other user’s browser. This capability has since been duplicated in a number of other products, including IBM Docs and the Notes feature of Yammer.

The following figure shows simultaneous editing of a Yammer note, with the text entered by the remote user highlighted. (What you can’t see in this black-and-white figure is that the text is highlighted in the same color as the collaborator’s username on the right.)

Collaborators can simultaneously edit a Yammer Note.

Collaborators can simultaneously edit a Yammer Note.

As an alternative, IBM offers IBM Docs as its version of a web-based office suite that can be used with IBM Connections.