Google Docs has had a rather long and sometime unpromising voyage as a word processor. When it first appeared on desktop browsers, it lacked a great many of the formatting and other editorial features that many people -- especially those who were used to feature-heavy word processors like Microsoft Word -- were used to. Eventually, however, Google began adding enough functionality so that, today, Docs is a useful (if still occasionally lacking) desktop word processor.
It has gone the same route with the Android version. When Google Docs first hit Android phones, you couldn't even edit your documents; and when you finally could, the process was awkward and time-consuming.
The latest version of Google Docs, which became available yesterday, means that it is finally a truly usable mobile word processor for Android devices. The new version is cleaner, easier to read, and easier to use than its predecessors, and it adds the ability to collaborate in real time -- so that, for example, a colleague could ask me to check out a document while I was sitting in a bus on my way to work, and could watch the edits I made as I made them.
I tried it out this morning, and I was really surprised by how quickly changes in a shared document were made and reflected in both the desktop and mobile versions of Google Docs. A translucent label on top of the document tells you who else is viewing or editing, and color is used to indicate when changes are being made.
There were problems. For example, if I closed and then reopened a document in my Android app, it appeared as an additional viewer in my desktop copy of Google Docs, so I was being told I had two other viewers of the document, when I really only had one. (The other viewer eventually disappeared, but it took a few minutes.)
Other than the collaboration features, there are other ways in which Google has improved its online word processor. For example, it now uses a small tab at the side to make it easier to scroll up and down a document; making this process much easier than having to repeatedly run your finger up or down the side of the screen.
A small blue pointed tab (which is available in some other mobile apps) indicates where your cursor is, making it a lot easier to make changes. Double tap on a word, and it is selected, with the blue tabs indicating the beginning and end of the selected area; you can pull either to increase the area, and then cut and paste as you wish. (This particular feature may not be new to this version; but I didn't notice it in the previous version, and I thought it worth mentioning.)
What I found most convenient is the new menu system, which is much easier to use. You no longer have to click on an icon to switch to edit mode; as soon as you tap anywhere in the document, you can immediately edit. A single menu bar across the top lets you save your changes, undo changes, redo changes, or make your text bold, italicized or underlined. Swipe the bar to the left, and you can add numbered or bulleted lists; increase or decrease indents; or change color -- the color menu appears across the bottom, and lets you add color to either the text or the background.
As a confirmed touch typist, I am not going to suggest that you can now use your smartphone to easily create long reports or craft your next novel. However, Google Docs is now improved to the point where you can comfortably edit existing documents, jot down a few notes, or join a colleague in correcting a report when you're on a tight deadline. And that's not bad.
This story, "Google Docs for Android: Mobile Word Processing Gets Practical" was originally published by Computerworld.