How Google Has Quietly Revolutionized Document Editing

The file type is becoming a thing of the past.

Illustration: A Google Docs logo with arms and legs poses while using a logo of Microsoft Word as a stepstool. Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Google Docs is the best editor.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Working as an editor for an online publication a few years back, I remember receiving a draft of a story from a freelancer submitted as a PDF. “A PDF?” I asked aloud incredulously. Microsoft Word documents, Google docs, or even plain text files were the types of digital currency I normally dealt with. “How am I supposed to edit a PDF?” I could have just asked the freelancer to resend the file in a different format, but instead I used my extensive background as a technology reporter to Google “PDF to .doc converters,” change the file type, and commence my work on the piece. The whole ordeal couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, but the hassle made a lasting imprint on my memory. In an era where we can send a Tesla into space, my workflow shouldn’t hit a roadblock just because of a stupid file type.

Nowadays, that sort of predicament is a thing of the past—at least if you’re a Google Drive user. The search giant has been waging a quiet war against your document-editing workflow. Or perhaps more accurately, Google’s been democratizing it. In the days of yore, if you wanted to open a Microsoft Word document, you needed Microsoft Word. For a PDF, a PDF reader like Adobe Acrobat. Plain text docs and rich text docs would show up questionably formatted, depending on the program you opened them with. And then there were open document types, the digital equivalent of filing a grade-school essay in purple ink. While document-editing apps have been vying for your downloads, Google has been making it easier and easier to open and edit documents of any type without the need for any sort of separate program.

With Google Drive, you can open up most any document (including PDFs) and start editing it as a Google document. You can save it as that same original file type, or as one of a number of other popular formats, and then share it with whomever in whatever style they prefer. Nearly any time I send a Word document, I have never actually opened it in Word—the whole thing was written in Google Drive. As long as Gmail is your email provider of choice, such a workflow makes sense: It gives you access to all your written documents no matter what browser or device you’re on, and you can share, collaborate, or edit them at a moment’s notice. And unless you pay for extra Drive storage, it’s free. (That price tag comes with a big asterisk in terms of data ownership and privacy, though Google doesn’t use Drive for tailored advertising or share files).

On Wednesday, Google introduced another update to Google Drive that makes this sort of quick, collective document markup even easier. Now you can comment on Office files, PDF documents, and images in Drive’s preview pane—without even having to fully open the file in Google Drive. For dedicated Drive users, it’s an added level of convenience that can shave a few precious seconds off your workflow. The move also further the negates the need to pay for other traditional productivity tools like Acrobat Reader or Microsoft Office Suite, the latter of which offers a useful real-time collaboration feature. And indeed, it is a strong play against Microsoft Office, which is still the reigning document format and productivity suite, particularly among enterprise clients. Microsoft, it should be noted, has been focusing on the other end of Google’s equation, upping its OneDrive cloud storage efforts in order to lure customers away from Google, Dropbox, and other cloud services.

But Google’s update is far more than just a ploy to lure Office users away from Microsoft’s apps. Google is eliminating the need for distinct file types, making it easier to sign or edit documents regardless of the applications you have downloaded on your phone or desktop. It’s a novel idea, really—just being able to open a file, work on it, and not think about “what” it is. While Microsoft, Apple, and others continue to work in walled gardens, Google is making interoperability one of its primary focuses. For consumers inundated with ever more work but no additional hours in the day, it’s the kind of time and stress savings that are exceedingly worthwhile.

This post was updated to clarify Google’s privacy policy around data stored in Google Drive.