Thursday, April 17, 2008

First Impressions with Google Docs Offline. (a work in progress)

This morning I was excited to see that my account finally received the "Offline" feature update. I had been anticipating this feature roll-out since hearing about it in late March.

So naturally like most new software features/updates I installed it as soon as I was able to. Google's Offline Docs feature uses Google's Open Source "Google Gears" in order to bring you an offline experience to Google's Web-apps.

As you all already know, I love taking my web-apps offline. I love knowing that if there's anytime that I absolutely do not have access to the internet, that I can still access all my information. Plus this offline hard copy allows for assurance knowing that I have a back-up copy if Google's servers were ever to fail me.

So here's just a little bit from my first experiences with Google's Offline Docs:

Installation was quick and painless. Syncing was quick, though I don't have too many documents. It's kind of a bummer that you do have to install something to get this web-app feature to work, but it makes sense as to why you need to. My only beef so far with Google Gears is it's lack of browser support. According to Google's Help Center, Google Gears is currently only supported by Firefox when using Mac OS X. C'mon Google! (and all the open source developers working on this) Firefox is what I use the least on my Mac. At least make a plugin for Mozilla's very own Camino and hopefully support will come to Safari here in the near-future. There is hope, the page continues on by saying that more browsers will be supported soon.

Anyways, enough of my rambling, and onto the actual feature. After all my files were synced, I unplugged my computer from the network in order to test things out. Right away I noticed something that turned me off a great deal. Offline editing can only be used on word documents. That's right, as far as I can tell, there's no editing options for Spreadsheet or Presentation files. You can still view the Spreadsheets but you can't make any changes to them while Offline. Most of my Documents are Spreadsheets so this is quite a bummer. The disappointments don't stop there, you cannot create a new document when Offline. This goes for Spreadsheets, Word Documents, everything.

Second thing I noticed was pretty disappointing as well. When you do go offline (as easy as pulling out your ethernet cable or turning off, or disabling your network interface) and you point your browser to, I was surprised to see that it does not ask for your password, but simply just your Gmail Username. I'm not sure if I like this. So let me get this straight, if you're online and point to you need to authenticate with a username and password to access your documents, but if you simply pull your network cable out you just have to type in the email address and it pulls up the offline docs. Now I know the chances of someone getting onto your already logged in computer are pretty slim, it still is a little sketchy how easy it is to view them. But I guess if you think about regular word documents in non-web-apps, it's just as easy to view these files, so I'll let it slip for now, but it'd be nice to see this improved on in the future. However, I am curious as to if having to authenticate when offline would be a security risk as well. If you had to authenticate offline, that would mean it'd have to store your password somewhere on your system. And since it's just a browser plugin, I'm not sure if they'd be able to use encryption or anything to store your passwords or if it'd all be in plain-text (obviously a solution that I would not be too fond of as either).

There's one last thing that I heard that sounded a little off when I heard it. I haven't actually tried this but I read that if you make online changes and offline changes (two separate computers at the same time) when syncing the offline computer again, the online changes take priority over the offline changes. So if you edited a document offline and also editing it online, when you sync back up, you lose all your changes to the offline data and there's no warning what-so-ever, just throws away your changes. Not sure to what extent this is and I'll definitely have to test this out on my own since this doesn't sound very appealing.

But in the end, it is a web-app after all (well excluding Google Gears) and that means that improvements are inevitable. Let's just hope we see them soon.

If you are still curious about what the Google Docs Offline feature is exactly and you don't want to try it out yet, check out this youtube video that basically explains how it works.

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