12 April 2011

Google Docs saves the day!

By Andrew Clifford

Google Docs' collaboration features are particularly good for occasional users because they do not require any software setup on your PC.

In my company, we work remotely from each other and use technology to collaborate. We use email. We make a lot of use of Skype. Recently we have started using Dropbox for sharing files.

The one bit of the collaboration puzzle that we still have problems with is when more than one person needs to work on the same document at the same time. This is useful for collaborating on design, and on client presentations and proposals. We do not do this very often, so our approach is not that well thought through.

Last week we needed to work together on a data model for a new part of our Advisor product. We tried lots of different methods.

First, we tried the YuuGuu add-on to Skype. We have used it before, and it worked very well. But since then I had bought a new PC, and I needed to reinstall YuuGuu. I could not then connect through to my colleague's PC, so we tried something else.

We tried Windows remote assistance, which lets two people share one session. But we had a lot of difficulties sending the remote assistance request from one PC to the other. We tried using Windows Messenger/MSN Messenger/Live Messenger (or whatever it is this week), which can make it easier, but got caught up in version differences and could not get it to work.

Being Linux enthusiasts, we tried a shared Virtual Network Computing (VNC) session on one of our Linux machines. We have used this before, and it worked very well. We even have a virtual machine on one of our servers that we use just for shared VNC sessions. But the server was running a bit low on memory, so we could not use that. I tried using another Linux machine, but hit problems configuring the network and VNC.

I spent two or three hours trying, and failing, to get these methods to work. Then I stumbled into Google Docs. Google Docs is an online office application, with word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation and drawing software. It allows you to share your documents with other people, and, if both of you are editing it at the same time, to see each other's edits in real time.

For our data modelling session, we used the drawing application on Google Docs while talking on Skype. It let us all see and change the models as we discussed them, and, although it is not a specialised data modelling tool, it worked really well for our session.

I am sure we could have got any of the other methods to work, and they would have allowed us to share much richer applications than Google Docs. However, because they require software on the PC, and because we do not use them often enough to have an up-to-date installation and configuration, they were just too hard. Because it does not require any setup on the PC, Google Docs is just much easier.

For simple collaborative working, the combination of Skype and Google Docs is an excellent option, and much easier than more feature-rich solutions.