June 9, 2006

Google Spreadsheets and the usefulness of online applications

Author: Bruce Byfield

To many commentators, the newly released Limited Test version of Google Spreadsheets is the first move by a major company to challenge Microsoft's domination of the office suite. The functional reality, however, is less dramatic. From a user's perspective, Google Spreadsheets suffers the same limitations as Writely, Ajax13, ThinkFree Online, and half a dozen other online applications. Its lack of printing options and narrow selection of format, sorting, and formula tools makes it such a lightweight application that using it for anything except the simplest of projects is impossible. In fact, now that online applications are no longer a novelty, its main interest is as an illustration of how little developers assume that users actually need in an office application.

One key assumption Google makes is that spreadsheets are used entirely online. Although that assumption holds true more often than not, most spreadsheets do provide options for printing, because the few times that you need to print, your need is probably urgent. These options include the ability to insert page breaks, shrink cells to fit on a page, and, when a sheet is too large for a single sheet of paper, whether rows and columns are printed first on later pages. In addition, users can hide rows and columns so that only essential information is printed, or choose whether to print cell borders. Google Spreadsheets lacks all of these tools. Presumably, the assumption is that you will download a spreadsheet if you need to print it. However, if you have to download, why not use a free spreadsheet like KSpread or Gnumeric on your hard drive instead of an online application?

The situation is somewhat better when you turn to cell formatting. Advanced users might object that the selection of number formats lacks a few advanced options such as boolean values or fractions, but the choices of numbers, dates, times, currency, percentage, and text is probably enough for most users. However, other format options are either lacking or absent. Standard font attributes such as bold or italic weights are difficult to use because of sluggish performance. Similarly, fonts are limited to a half dozen of those installed by default with Windows, which reduces the users of free operating systems to a couple of choices at the most. Others formatting options, such as alignment or text wrap, which make cells easier to read, have limited application in a spreadsheet created online, because, as far as I can see, Google Spreadsheets lacks any options to resize columns to improve readability. Nor can cells be protected or hidden.

Judging by the interface, the designers of Google Spreadsheets consider sorting one of the main functions of spreadsheets. However, the sorting options are equally limited. In Google Spreadsheets, you can sort cells in ascending or descending order, and by a single column, rather than the three available in most desktop spreadsheets. Case sensitiveness is not an option. Nor is the possibility that a first row or column might be a label, although rows can be frozen so that you can continue viewing while you scroll. In addition, Google Spreadsheets also lacks any sort of filters, or any ability to group rows to manipulate them.

Google Spreadsheets - click to enlarge

Google's developers seem to have paid most of their attention to formulae. Although the selection of basic functions that are given buttons may seem questionable to some, those listed under the More link should be adequate for most users, even if they are are fewer in number than OpenOffice.org Calc or Microsoft Excel. What is less than adequate is the need to scroll through different categories to find a particular function, especially given the unresponsive interface. The floating window for entering arguments is difficult to use for the same reason.

As for the standard tools for manipulating formulae -- forget about them, too. The ability to run multiple scenarios, trace back the arguments, or find the values that will give you the answers you need are all standard tools in desktop spreadsheets, yet Google Spreadsheets lacks all of them.

The same goes for the ability to add charts or graphics, two common additions to spreadsheets in academia or business.

Looking at all the missing components of Google Spreadsheets, I have to wonder: Are the average user's needs so simple that none of the functions will be missed? I doubt it. There may be some truth in the frequently made claim that the average person uses less than 10% of the functionality of an office program, but Google Spreadsheets pares down to an even lower level. Besides, not everyone uses the same 10%. That's the main reason why, in the abstract, complaints about office suite bloat seem justified, but in practice are almost impossible to do much about. What seems like bloat to one person is often a vital tool to another.

Presumably, of course, Google Spreadsheets will eventually add more features. Yet its first appearance in the market seems typical of virtually every online application I've seen. Most of them fall far below what even undemanding users expect -- the exception being ThinkFree Online, whose feature set is probably complete enough to satisfy intermediate users.

Like gold miners hoping to stake a claim before the best sites are gone, the developers of online applications are rushing to grab mindshare in the new market long before their products are mature. The trouble is, by doing so, they risk destroying the market for their products before it exists. Products like Google Spreadsheets may be useful for collaboration, but their unfinished state makes them a serious risk for disillusioning users. If that happens, by the time the final versions of online apps are available, a large segment of the market may have already decided not to take a second look.

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