Has this ever happened to you? You create a document in Microsoft Word, let’s say a proposal, and now you need feedback from your coworkers. So, you write an email and attach the document, asking everyone to provide edits using “track changes” and return to you by next Tuesday. You don’t look forward to Tuesday because you know that you will soon be receiving eight versions of the same document, all with their own unique revisions that must be incorporated into a single document (in MS Word you would merge these documents using Insert>Object, then get to work making decisions about which changes to keep and which ones to ignore). With revisions incorporated, you send the document out again for a final review and wait for more changes . A week later you are finally ready to send the proposal to the client.
Fortunately, cloud computing offers a better way. By using “shared documents” you can make collaboration faster and easier for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, and images. Shared documents are documents that live in the cloud, not your hard drive, and offer some collaboration tools that are not available with traditional installed software applications.
The two leading providers of shared documents, Google Docs and Microsoft SkyDrive, both offer free consumer solutions as well as fee-for-service models for large corporate customers. For most of us, all that is required is an internet connection, a web browser, and a free Gmail or SkyDrive account. Let’s look more closely at Google Docs, keeping in mind that SkyDrive operates on the same basic principles.
Google Docs allows anyone with an account (start by getting a free Gmail email address) to create documents that live on Google’s servers. Once a document is created it is shared by sending a link (not an attachment) so that collaborators are all looking at one single document sitting in the cloud. Google Docs are always viewed in a web browser, though they can be downloaded in a variety of formats for those times where you decide to keep a copy on a hard drive.
As the creator of a Google Doc, you have control over who can see or edit the document. You might choose to keep the document private, share it with one or two specific people, or let anyone on the internet see it, kind of like a web page. You can also control whether people can edit the document or simply view it.
The power of shared documents really becomes evident when all eight of your collaborators are working on the document at the same time; you can see edits taking place before your eyes in real time, with a different color representing each person. Google Docs also provides a “Comment” sidebar that allows multiple threaded discussions to take place, like a bulletin board that accompanies the document.
Another strength of Google Docs is the “Revision History” tool that shows the history of changes made to the document. It’s very similar to “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word, though considerably easier to use, showing who made what change and when. Revision History is available for the spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing tools, but the tool is very hard to find! Click the gray text at the top of the page that says “All Changes Saved” to access Google’s Revision History tool.
The days of email-attached documents is nearly over, and that is a very good thing because managing documents in the cloud is easier, cheaper, more secure, and provides real collaboration to unlimited participants working from any internet-connected device.