Review: Google Spreadsheet Beta Doesn't Quite Add Up
Google's latest online service has a great interface, good basic features,
and a nice collaboration angle, but it's missing some vital parts.
By Barbara Krasnoff
Jun 7, 2006 05:37 PM
There's a lot of talk around the blogosphere about how Google is starting to
challenge Microsoft for primacy in office applications. This isn't very
surprising: Google's already got an e-mail client (Gmail), a scheduling app
(Google Calendar), and has bought a company called Upstartle in order to
obtain its Writely word processor (which is not currently taking on new
users but, according to the company's blog, might reappear for invitees
early in July). Now Google has released the beta of an online spreadsheet
called, appropriately, Google Spreadsheet.
Google Spreadsheet is obviously aimed straight at the consumer/home office
market -- in other words, at people who use their spreadsheets for
reasonably simple accounting processes, data tracking, or other tasks. Since
that is exactly where I fall in -- I use it for simple statistics and as a
sort of "database lite" -- I thought I'd give it a try.
As a whole, I found Google's new app very easy to learn and use. It has the
familiar spreadsheet look; three tabs on the upper left of your page --
Format, Sort, and Formulas -- give you access to the main features. On the
upper right, buttons let you cut, copy, paste, undo, or redo any action. You
can have up to 20 tabbed pages per worksheet; as in Excel, you access each
at the bottom of the spreadsheet. A File drop-down menu offers access to the
usual New, Open, Save As commands, as well as the ability to import and
There are several hundred formulas available in Google Spreadsheet; a
sampling is accessible from a pop-up box (with the most popular listed on
the right-hand side of the Formulas menu bar). If you prefer, of course, you
can simply type your formulas into the appropriate cell.
You can import existing spreadsheets in either .csv or .xls format, so I
tried importing a moderately long Excel spreadsheet that included a variety
of formatting and formulas, and found it translated perfectly. Another that
included some graphs didn't do so well; while the formulas and text areas
came across, there was a huge gap where the graphs were supposed to be.
In fact, that is in itself a huge gap in the functionality of Google
Spreadsheet: It does not do graphs or macros. That is somewhat akin to
saying that a word processor doesn't do fonts -- you can make do without
them, but you don't really want to. Formatting options are also somewhat too
limited; for example, I often surround the cells of my spreadsheet with
borders to help define the contents (especially when printing them out);
that feature is not available.
I was going to add "printing your spreadsheet" to things that Google
Spreadsheet couldn't do -- there is no Print command in the File drop-down
-- until I went to the Help area. There, I found that if you choose Get HTML
from the File menu, the spreadsheet will open as an HTML document in a new
browser window; you can then print it as an HTML page. (You can't, however,
print parts of it, which may be a problem for folks with large
spreadsheets.) This is an unusually non-intuitive method for an application
that is otherwise pretty straightforward.
One thing that the Google Spreadsheet can do that others cannot is
dynamically share your data online. You can choose to allow others to edit,
or just read, your spreadsheet by inviting them via e-mail -- a nicely
simple way to share spreadsheet data.
Like all of Google's new apps, the word "beta" is a part of the name of
Google Spreadsheet. This has traditionally been Google's method of
deflecting criticism; if something is beta, after all, it's not finished,
and any problems can be fixed. Google has, for the most part, been good
about fixing problems in its beta products, so it is likely that features
such as graphs will show up in Google Spreadsheet sometime in the future.
Are Online Spreadsheets A Good Idea?
One thing that Google may not be able to overcome is a natural reluctance
for users to entrust all their spreadsheet work to an online medium. While
sharing, say, a calendar online is not new, and makes a lot of sense,
sharing a spreadsheet online doesn't seem as necessary (although it can be
convenient at times). And it might not be a good idea to be working with
complicated figures on a spreadsheet which could suddenly become unavailable
if your connection gets wonky.
Right now, my recommendation for those who need a spreadsheet, and can't
afford a Microsoft app, is to go with one of the open-source applications,
of which OpenOffice is the best known. Google Spreadsheet is fun to play
with, and has some interesting potential as far as sharing data online is
concerned, but right now it's more a curiosity than a working model.
Google Spreadsheet is currently in "limited test" mode; you can apply for an
invitation at http://spreadsheets.google.com
I use Google... I love the personalised home page on Google, I love my Gmail
account. I am not too impressed, however, with certain other Google
Google Location, for example, seems to follow the thinking that there is no
world outside the USA.
Google Calendar a) operates under the impression that I am always going to
have internet connectivity to run my life, and b) has absolutely no way of
synchronising to my smart phone (or pda or other) at this point in time.
Of course, I don't use Word or Excel much, and when I do, my usage is fairly
I use Word to type up manuals and proposals, with a preset format (in a
template I created)
I use Excel to transport data between databases, basically (when a data
query just doesn't do it for me), or to export data from a database for a
'user' to read.
But, again, Google makes the assumption that people live on-line. And it
follows that same believe that Google Location propagates: that there is no
world outside the USA, and, if there is one, it works exactly the way the
USA does. I understand that most of the northern hemisphere has fabulous
broadband that is almost free, and it is entirely possible to live online,
because the number of wi-fi spots are also mind-blowing, which means you can
even sit on a toilet anywhere in a city and use your portable device there
to manage your affairs.
Unfortunately, however, things work a little differently below the equator,
especially on the dark continent. And here, people don't live on-line
completely (although I do know of people who practically do), and providing
on-line only applications is not completely practical. Of course, if there
was a way to save a limited-feature version of the application to your
device (laptop/computer/smart phone/pda), it might be a different story -
this will enable the user to at least access the files while not on-line
(maybe not edit, but at least view), and would make it far easier for the
n-connected to make use of it.
Of course, it would be great to have a free (or cheap) portable 'office'
application suite for the general user, but it should be exactly that:
portable. And, having it on-line only makes it almost less portable than the
Microsoft offering (as I can load spreadsheets, word docs and various other
office files onto my smart phone and carry it around with me - to view, not
And maybe this is the reason I am feeling disenchanted with Google of late:
they seem to be propagating the 'Amerika is de senter ov de univers' idea
which annoys me so terribly, trying to win over the US market with products
to replace current popular products, rather than focussing on innovating, as
they used to do.