Last updated February 25, 2015. Please visit the official site for the most up-to-date information.
For the past two decades, there was one set of programs you could all-but guarantee would exist on any Mac or PC you touched: Microsoft Office. This ubiquitous suite including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—along with Outlook, Access, and various other programs, depending on the edition you were using—were the programs many of us cut our technical teeth on. They're where we learned to type, where we used a spreadsheet to calculate our first budget, and where we wasted countless hours making animated presentations.
And yet, today, Office's dominance is fading, largely due to another suite of apps: Google Docs. This suite doesn't need installed on a recent model computer; all you need is an internet connection and a Google account, and you'll get word processor, spreadsheet tool, and presentation app for free. Each of the apps have somewhat less features than their Office counterparts, but they're easy to use and cost far less. And, they're designed for the way people work today.
Google Docs started out from a few separate projects that were acquired by the search giant. Its namesake word processor began as Writely, a collaborative online word processor that Google acquired in 2006, while Docs' spreadsheet tool started out as XL2Web which Google had acquired a year earlier. Then, with Google's iterative development, both gained features over time to where, today, they're nearly the same as any other office suite. But, there's one major advantage with Google Docs: you can collaborate on your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in real-time with anyone else, something that would be difficult or impossible in most traditional office suites.
Docs, the namesake app, is likely the first app in the Google Docs suite you'll use. It's a word processor, with an interface somewhat reminiscent of older versions of Microsoft Office, complete with a File menu and toolbars with the tools you'll use most. You can import Microsoft Word files, or start out your own documents from scratch or using a pre-made template. Most of your standard keyboard shortcuts will work, along with the basic fonts that come with all computers. If you want to get more creative, you can add fonts from the Google Fonts library and import images from Google Image search.
Then, there's Docs' best feature: collaborative editing. You can share your document with as many people as you want, to let them either read it or help you edit it. You can hand off the document for edits, and look over their changes and comments to see which you wan to add, or you can all edit at the same time. The former is a great way to work in a team, letting others edit and extend on your work, while the latter is great for group projects, collaborative note taking, and more. It's easily the best reason to use Google Docs.
Documents aren't all Docs is good at. There's also Google Sheets, Docs' companion spreadsheet app, which once again looks somewhat like an older version of Microsoft Excel. You'll find all of the formulas and charts you'd expect, including pivot tables, along with the collaborative features you'd expect in Google Docs. And if it's missing a function you need, you can code your own macros with Google Apps Script. It's a real, business-ready spreadsheet tool.
And, it has an extra trick up its sleeve: forms. No matter which form you're using, most save your entries into a spreadsheet file which you'll download and analyze in your spreadsheet app later. Google Sheets lets you skip a step, making a basic form inside Sheets that then saves the data directly to a spreadsheet. You can them act on that data right as it's coming in, with charts and formulas that live update as more people fill out your form. It's a nice extra on top of an already feature-packed suite.
Last but not least, there's Present, the presentation app in the Google Docs suite. It's perhaps more basic than the former tools, with less fancy templates and animations than you'll find in PowerPoint and Keynote. But, if you want to make a basic presentation that's easy to present from any computer—or over a Chromecast—Present is a capable presentations tool that includes the features you need to make custom slides, include graphs and images, and add lecture notes so you won't forget what to say.
One other advantage of Google Docs is its deep integration with Google's other programs. You can see your Docs files in Google Drive, open attachments from Gmail in Docs, and install Chrome extensions or Google Marketplace apps that bring additional features to Docs. There's a variety of other apps, from reference tools to integration apps like Zapier, that can automatically add data to your documents and more. And if you need to use Docs offline, you can install its Chrome extensions which will download the main features and let you work on your files from anywhere.
Google Docs doesn't stand alone on the internet today. It's joined by Microsoft Office Online in OneDrive, Zoho Docs, Apple's iCloud Web Apps, and more. What Google Docs does best is offering nearly every feature you could need, instead of just being an accompaniment to a desktop office suite, and in working so well with collaboration.
If you need a free way to edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, or want to work on them with anyone else, it's hard to go wrong with Google Docs. It won't work with the most advanced spreadsheet and document formatting features, but most of the time, it'll be everything you need—and more.
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