Office tools in the Cloud for the SOHO

This article aims at showing you how to get Office tools (word-processor, stylesheet…) for your Small Office/Home Office free and in the Cloud.

In the good old days, people had word-processors and spreadsheet tools on their computer. But nowadays, the computing process goes to the Cloud. Microsoft has Office 365 and Office Web Apps, Google has Google Docs. I won’t deeply go into what’s Google Apps. Should you not know what it is, just browse to http://www.google.com/a and you’ll get it.

Why looking at Google Apps? Mainly because it is free (for personnal uses and company under 10 people) and available from any place where you can reach the Internet (AKA the Cloud). There also is an option to get the tools offline since you use the Google Chrome browser. Which means that you can mostly continue to work even if you loose access to the Internet.

The prerequisites

Google Apps is composed of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Sites and Google Docs. In my example, I’ll concentrate on Google Docs because I already have a mail system and web site running. So we’ll see how to integrate that already existing organization with Google Docs.

You can get Google Docs from any free Google account. In my particular case, I wan’t to demonstrate how to use Google Docs to share documentation between people in the same organization.

You can use mostly any browser to manage you Google Docs. I did a few testings with Safari on Mac OS X Lion and it worked well. In this example, I’ll use Google Chrome to be sure to get all the benefits of the solution.

First of all, you’ll need a Mail domain to deal with user accounts and a website (or DNS skills) to deal with ownership. In my case, I’ll use my tumfatig.net domain and this blog are a referral website.

The subscription

Using you web browser, go to http://www.google.com/a. From the “Solutions” menu, select the “Google Apps (Free)” item. Have a look at the “Compare with Google Apps for Business” section to see it the free version has enough features for your SOHO. When done, click the big “Get started” blue button.

As I said, “I want to use an existing domain name”. So I filled-in the “Enter your domain name” field with my tumfatig.net domain and clicked then “Get started” button.

Note that “Free Google Apps is limited to 10 user accounts”. Fill-in the “Account Administrator” fields and click “Continue”. I did not use an email address from the tumfatig.net ; just because my primary email is not set on this domain name. I also won’t make any changes to my DNS infrastructure.

“Your administrator account” has to use the domain configured with Google Apps. So be sure it exists before configuring it. Read and accept the license terms and click the “Continue” button.

Then, you’ll be asked “How would you like to set up Google Apps”. In this test-run mode, I chose to “Go Express”.

Setup wizard

Looks like the first steps are done. Google grants you with a

It's time to go Google! Congratulations on joining the millions of organizations who are using Google Apps! You're now just steps away from enjoying the powerful services and cost savings offered by Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and all your other new apps.

Click “Next” to go on with the setup wizard.

Validate domain

The first thing to do is to prove that you rule the previously configured domain. This ensures that you are not trying to use a domain that you don’t own. The recommended way to do so is to upload a specific HTML file at the root of the website running on your domain. Follow the instructions (4 steps) to validate your domain:

  • download a Google generated file
  • upload that file to your web server
  • check that the file is accessible
  • tell Google to fetch that file and grant you the administrator rights

Once the “Verification successful”, just click the “Continue” link.

Users and groups

Google then asks: Will anyone else at tumfatig.net be using Google Apps with you?
In the case of a SOHO, there will probably be a few users using that email domain. You can choose to add users by hand or to import a CSV file containing the account informations.

Applications

Then, it’s time to “Set up your Apps”. By default, every account will get Gmail, Calendar and Docs. You can change this in the Business or Education plan.

I didn’t linked Gmail with my messaging system. Because I don’t wan’t to. But a SOHO may wish too. This enables the redirection of every email to Gmail. Using Calendar and the mobile access, you gain a complete messaging solution.

Regarding Google Docs, it will now be accessible from the https://docs.google.com/a/tumfatig.net URL. Depending on the permissions you set, document will be publicly or privately published from this URL.

Training and Support

Finally, you have to option to train your users. Have a look at http://learn.googleapps.com/

I won’t go into further customization of the domain. Have a look at your dashboard and see what you can do to get a better professional Cloud environment.

The Google Docs

As previously told by the wizard, the Google Docs are now available from https://docs.google.com/a/tumfatig.net/. Log in using the account you created.

If you go to the parameters’ section, Google will inform you that: “You are currently using x MB (y%) of your 1024 MB. Only stored files (.PDF, .DOC, .JPG, etc.) count towards your storage limit. Google Docs formats don’t use up your storage space.” As Google Docs can be exported to some other format, you may wish to only use native format in your Cloud.

Here what Google Docs looks like when you start using it:

If you click on the “Create” button, you’ll have the opportunity to create Document, Presentation or Spreadsheet documents. There also are Forms, Drawing and Collections objects available. Note the Collections are some sort of directory as you use then on standard workstation.

The documents are exportable as PDF, Microsoft Office, simple text and OpenOffice (for some apps).

Document

The “Document” object looks like what you can get with tools like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer.

You can use paragraphs, styles, insert images and array, copy/paste text from within or outside Google Docs and much more. It seems to be quite complete.

You can also import already written Word and PDF document. Beware that some conversion may not be perfect and some might even need a lot of rewriting operations. Most in most case, you automagically get a decent Cloud document.

Spreadsheet

The “Spreadsheet” object ressemble Excel, GNUmeric and OpenOffice Calc tools.

There are options to enter text and numbers, put format on it, use function to calculate stuff and even graph numbers.

As with the Document object, you can import Excel document. In my testings, I imported a sheet from Excel/Mac which contained various numbers about TDP and CPU power. Every value and function were imported correctly. Only the chart was a mess.

Presentation

The “Presentation” object is what you would expect from Microsoft PowerPoint.

I imported a quick complexe PowerPoint presentation to test the conversion module ; it include formatted text, layer, images… The only slides that were messed up were the one with shapes in it. Some rendered well, some other were converted in black shapes. But all in all, 80% of the presentation was correct.

Sharing the Google Docs

When you have stored and created your document, you can either send it via email attachment to anyone or send a link to a person. Configuring correct permissions, you’ll give the opportunity to give read-only or modification access to your files.

From the “Share” button, on the upper right corner of the Apps interface, you’ll have the possibility to either send a document via email attachment, choosing the export format or private message to some people belonging to your domain. Using the “Share…” command, you will send an URL to the people you want to share your doc with. The URL will point to Google Apps servers. Depending on the permissions you set, people will either be able to read your doc or modify it.

The user will have to authenticate using it’s Google account, wether or not it linked to your Google Apps domain. If the user has “read-only” permissions, he will be able to view your document and export it locally on it’s computer.

When the user has modification rights, it gets access to the application and can do any modifications he wants. Saving the changes apply to your document.

You will be notified by Google that someone is modifying your document and also get information such as “Last edit was made 3 minutes ago by Joel Carnat”. From the “File” menu, you’ll get the option to “See revision history”. This will help you follow what happened to your document. It will also be possible to recover a previous version of the document.

Offline Office tools

The problem with tools that are available in the Cloud is that you can’t use them since you can’t reach the Internet. One nice feature of Google Docs is that they can be used offline with Google Chrome, using a specific module.

From Chrome, log-in and click the “Settings” button. Select the “Set up Docs offline” option and follow the wizard.

First of all, you can “Set up offline viewing of Google Docs”. This will tell Chrome to manage the cache so that you can read your document offline.

Then “Allow offline access for your computer”. This will tell Chrome to download and install a particular module, named “Google Documents”, from Google Web Store. Clicking the button, you’ll be driven to the Web store where you’ll find a button to install the module to Chrome.

To view the list of your offline files, click the “Settings” button and select the “View offline Docs” option.

Here are a few limitations (at the time of writing):

  • Offline access is available in Chrome only.
  • Offline access is available only for documents and spreadsheets. Presentations, drawings and other items from your Documents List are not available offline at this time.
  • Documents and spreadsheets are only available in view-only mode. You must restore your Internet connection to make any edits.
  • You can’t create new documents and spreadsheets while you’re offline.

There seem to be an option to link your Microsoft Office suite and Google Docs ; check Google Cloud Connect. I won’t talk about this feature here because I own a Mac and it’s not available on this platform (yet ?). Plus, should I have to be using Microsoft Office, I’d rather go for the desktop client and a remote share directory on the Web.

Google Docs and Android

I own an Asus Transformer, running Android 3, which I used to test Google Docs.

From the Web browser, you can choose the “Mobile” or “Desktop” version. To be short, the mobile version allows only test input ; no bold/italic/formula/… The desktop version simply doesn’t work ; at least for me and while trying to create a new word processing document.

You can download the free Google Docs application. On my configuration, I just couldn’t ever edit a single document. There seem to be an issue with multiple account so that I could log-in to see my document’s list but never could log-in to edit them…

Conclusion

Google Docs is surely a nice Office suite for the Cloud. But the offline writing options didn’t convince me.

That’s All Folks! Happy testings.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: