If you collaborate with others and you haven't been using Google Docs then you're in for a treat. For the student or employee that has to complete those dreaded group projects Google Docs is ideal. Basically Google Docs is Google's version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office is a collection of programs that creates and edits documents(.doc), spreadsheets(.xls), and presentations(.ppt). In Office these are called Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Power Point presentations, respectively. Those names have stuck much in the same way we commonly refer to tissue as Kleenex. However, other programs edit these file types, such as OpenOffice, AbiWord, and Google Docs. Office and these programs also edit other file types but documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are the big three.

Google Docs provides the ability to collaborate these file types between several people, so that multiple people can be editing the file, whether at the same time or separately. With Google Docs or OpenOffice these file types can be created for free in contrast to Microsoft Office which requires a license. However, regardless of how the document was created, it can be used in Google Docs by uploading it. Not all the features that are available in Office and OpenOffice are available in Google Docs, so it's better to use Google Docs on projects that don't have a large amount of special formatting. Most documents, however, will work perfectly.

Getting Started

If you don't already have a Google account, you should. Once you do go to docs.google.com and log in to get started. From here you'll see the Create New and Upload buttons in the top left. Use Create New to make a new document or Upload to upload an existing one created on your machine. Once you do a new tab or window will open with the blank document in it. From here you can title and automatically save the document by clicking on Untitled Document in the top left and naming it. To collaborate with others, click on the share button in the top right. Where it says Add People, type in as many e-mail addresses as you'd like (separated by commas) to share with your friends. If the person doesn't have a Google email account they can still collaborate by creating a Google account. You will also see an option to change the permission level for the person you're sharing with. You can allow them to edit the document or to just view it if you don't want them making changes. If you want some people to edit and some to view you'll have to go through this process twice (once for the editors and once for the viewers). Now just edit the document and watch your friends edit it in real time!

Collaboration Tools

Now that you've shared it you may notice that you can see who else is currently viewing the document. You can click on their name and chat with them right there in the window. Nifty! If the people you're sharing with aren't online but you still want to leave a message for them then you can start a Discussion in the top right next to the Share button. Pretty cool! Once you're ready to print your document just click File→Print and it will convert it to PDF format and download it to your computer. Then you can print the PDF from your computer as you normally would. All done!

Advanced Features

One of the nicest things about Google Docs is the ability to collaborate on spreadsheets. These provide a convenient, organized, and simple way to store data and make it viewable to the people it's relevant to. For example, I used Google spreadsheets to store grades for the labs I teach. I can then share it with the lecture professor so that they can view the students grades as well. Using the spreadsheet's functions I can also automatically calculate their averages and final grades. One of the nicer advanced features of spreadsheets is scripting. If inside a spreadsheet you go to Tools→Scripts you can either choose Insert to browse a gallery of created scripts or Script Editor to make your own. Now, this is an advanced tool that most users won't use, but if you're feeling confident and adventurous this can do all kinds of things with your document. For example, in the past I've used this to create a script which would email out each student's personal quiz grades in a special format. This way they can keep track of their past grades and what their current average is. Cool!

Forms

Another commonly used and extremely useful feature of Google Docs is Forms. When you click Create New in the top left of your main Google Docs screen you'll see the option for a Form. This allows you to create a customized form with customized questions. Once your form is created you can either use a direct link to it or e-mail it to particular people. Then, the people with the link or the people that got the e-mail can fill out the form and their data will be stored in a spreadsheet for you. So, say I wanted to make an RSVP for a party and I wanted to know how many guests people were bringing and if they were bringing a dish. I could create a Form with questions like "What is your name?", "What is your phone number?", "How many guests are you bringing?", and "What dish are you bringing? (If any)." Once the people submit their answers it will add a new row to my Form spreadsheet with their name, phone number, number of guests, and dish. Really useful!

That's a brief introduction to Google Docs. There's also a nice API available and several more features to browse. Google Docs is widely used and therefore has support on many mobile phones. For phones that don't have an app for Google Docs there is a mobile website for it. It's an invaluable tool in today's business and educational realms!