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Much Ado About Nothing: Google's Docs Update

I've been alternatively amused and amazed by the reaction this week to a minor update to Google Docs that, if anything, actually makes Google's Office alternative less useful than before.

The company promises that various updates to Google Docs will rollout "over the next few days." Here's what they've announced:

Formatting options. Google Docs is getting a margin ruler, better numbering and bullets, and more flexible image placement.

Spreadsheets improvements. Spreadsheets now have a formula editing bar, cell auto-complete, drag-and-drop columns and more.

Better document uploading. Imported documents keep their original structure more accurately, so there will be less editing of existing documents that are moved to the cloud.

Performance improvements. "Web apps really can feel just as fluid as traditional software," Google says. Well, now they can.

Collaboration improvements. Google Docs will support up to 50 simultaneous editors, with character-by-character changes as others type. The Drawings module gets multiple editing support too.

And ... That's it. A fairly minor update by any measure. But check out what's being removed:

Offline support. "We need to temporarily remove offline support for Docs starting May 3rd, 2010."

The issue here, of course, is that Google is moving to HTML 5, and it's a moving spec, and well, sorry, early adopters. Hope you weren't relying on that. (Imagine, please, just for a second, Microsoft removing a key feature from Microsoft Word 2007. Something like the ability to edit documents when you're on a plane. That kind of thing. Got the image in your head yet? Good, let's move on.)

Here's a screenshot of the new Google Docs:

Just kidding. :) But aside from the collaboration stuff, what we're seeing today in Google Docs roughly mirrors the DOS-based versions of Word and Excel from the 1980's and early 1990's. This is just not compelling stuff, nor is it a great excuse to consider cloud computing.

But that's not how the press sees it. Oh, no. The tech press is as open to invented controversy and excitement as is your local TV news. Check out these headlines.

Google Docs Takes Microsoft Office Head On

As Google And Microsoft Slug It Out, CIOs Come Out On Top

Google Looks to Lure MS Users with Apps Update

Google And Microsoft Prepare For Cloud Battle

Google Adds a Touch of Microsoft to Applications

Google Ready to Get Down to Business

Scanning any of those headlines, you'd be forgiven for believing that Google had accomplished something impressive here and was assembling its not-inconsiderable weight for a massive head-on-head battle with Microsoft. But I think the offline functionality they took away far outweighs the minor and obvious features from 20 years ago that they just added. (A ruler? Formula editing? Wow.)

There's little doubt that the cloud is the future. But come on. Google Docs? Nothing to see here, sorry.

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