Google’s Buried Treasure

Four great applications you might not know about.

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Some of Google’s best stuff has been done by engineers goofing off on the job. The company’s techies all get paid “20 percent time“—a day per week in which they’re “free to pursue projects they’re passionate about.” This idea might seem profligate to outsiders, but Google News and the money-making AdSense service each started as an engineer’s pet project.

As Google nears 10,000 employees, though, it’s become impossible to keep up with the 100 or so public products and projects that have come and gone. Some, like Gmail and Google Earth, are huge hits. Others, like the discontinued Google Answers, fizzle. In between are a few low-profile applications with real potential, most of which can be found on a mini-site called Google Labs. Here’s my short list of Google’s coolest obscure apps.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets.It sounds boring until you try it: a browser-based word processor with most of your favorite features from Microsoft Word. Fonts, formatting, spelling, images, search and replace, word counter, comments, and the track-changes feature that’s the main reason my editors demand I use Word in the first place. Google Docs saves to HTML, Word, and PDF formats, among others.

Best of all, Google’s word processor starts saving the file to backup servers as soon as you start typing—you don’t have to remember to save it yourself. Files are automatically stored online, where you have the option of sharing them with other users. (You can also save them to your desktop.) I’ve used Google Docs to edit a Wired article with a co-author three time zones away. Eagle-eyed futurists have spotted a more surprising use: Co-workers in adjacent seats can edit the same file at the same time instead of hunching over each other’s screens.

Google Docs is a suitable Word stand-in for most uses, but, unlike Word, you can’t call it up if you’re not online. Google Spreadsheets is only OK. It won’t replace Excel anytime soon, at least until it supports Excel-style macros and charts. A Google spokeswoman told me it’s designed for “families just looking to organize the carpool/the PTA bake sale/their kids’ homework.” 

Google Notebook.I bookmark several new pages a day at home, at the office, and on my laptop. I then waste a lot of time trying to sync and manage my bookmarks. Google Notebook makes this one-click easy by adding a button to the bottom of my Firefox browser. When I find a page I want to remember, I click the button, and a small note-taking window pops up. I can then paste selected text or type my own notes. Like with Docs & Spreadsheets, my notes are saved on Google’s server. They’re centrally collected, sharable with others (if I want), and available from any browser—I just log in to my Google account to see them. I started using Google Notebook to collect pages and notes for this article. I can search my own notes or search all other users’ shared notes at once. There are three dozen saved and/or commented-upon Slate articles in the system already. 

Google Reader.If you don’t already use RSS to speed-read your favorite Web sites, this browser-based RSS reader is a good starter kit. Instead of surfing to each of your favorite sites to see what’s new, Google Reader lets you scan an inboxlike list of new articles and blog posts from all of your favorites. The major shortcoming with Google’s reader is that it isn’t designed to be used offline—I like to go through both my inbox and RSS on buses and trains when I can’t connect to the Web. Once again, an installed desktop application is functional in places where Google’s broadband-dependent version isn’t even accessible.

Google Moon, Google Mars.You’ve probably spent time looking at satellite photos of your house on Google Maps and/or Google Earth. Now, you can use the Google Maps interface to zoom around NASA data from the moon and the red planet. Due to a lack of close-up detail, these extraterrestrial maps aren’t as eye-popping as Google Earth. But remember how we used to hover over the TV and magazines for a few images from NASA’s space missions? Next time, we’ll expect the whole thing to be on YouTube. 

Tracking Google’s side projects leads to two conflicting conclusions. It’s amazing what you can do inside a Web browser nowadays, but Google’s online apps won’t put Microsoft’s desktop software out of business anytime soon. The first versions of Docs & Spreadsheets got pundits excited that Google was building a free “Office Killer” to compete with Microsoft. But Google’s apps only work properly with a live Internet connection. Since they rely on constant broadband, Google apps are both cooler and less practical than their PC-bound predecessors, especially if you travel a lot. That’s probably why Dell’s pre-installed Google applications stick to search tools for your desktop and the Internet.

If you really think Google’s going after Microsoft’s desktop market, run down the MS Office checklist. Google makes a word processor, spreadsheet tool, e-mail program, and calendar, but there’s one item missing: PowerPoint. Techies hate the thing, but PowerPoint presentations are a must for sales and marketing pros. A Googleized version could be a godsend for traveling salespeople. Imagine striding into a client’s meeting room without fumbling to connect to the projector. No bloated .ppt files to download, e-mail, or keep sorted on your laptop. Just pop onto the Web, and you’re ready to go.

I think the lack of a PowerPoint-like app proves Google isn’t serious about taking on Microsoft Office—yet. Maybe all of Google’s engineers consider chasing PowerPoint a waste of their 20 percent time. Maybe it’ll be easier for Larry and Sergey to buy one of the existing efforts. But mark my word: The day Google Slides (Beta) turns up on the Google Labs page, it’s a shooting war.