Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Google Drive... The Good, The Bad, the Hype

Stripping the news down to it's bare essentials:
Google Docs has been re-named to Google Drive. This is an upgraded version of Google Docs, with some enhancements. It's not a completely new service. The enhancements are as follows:
1. You now have 5GB of space "in the cloud".
2. You can store any kind of doc, not just the ones supported by Google Docs.
3. There's now client software for Windows, Mac, and Android, with iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Linux support coming soon. The client software makes the Google Drive look as though it's on the device.

Here's the introductory video by Google:

The Good
It's a good idea. Of course, it was a good idea when Linux hackers kludged up a virtual driver to treat Gmail as cloud storage many years ago. It was a good idea when companies like DropBox started offering similar services. I'll be mostly comparing it to DropBox, as I use that service.

It's nice that Google is offering 5GB of free storage. This is more than double what DropBox offers as an introduction.

It's nice that, as an upgrade path for Google Docs, you can access your documents and edit them through the Web interface. Of course, on-line editing is only available for file types  supported by Google Docs... basically word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation.

It's nice that you can share info with others, as you can with the other services. And when I say "share", it's quite a bit different from "making accessible"... I mean that you and people you invite can all work on the same doc at the same time, and changes are annotated with the name of the person making the change. I collaborate quite a bit, and I don't mind telling you that this is incredibly welcome when doing things like sharing a spreadsheet.

(Real-world example: You've got an ad-hoc list of tasks, bug-fixes, issues, what have you... and a team of people working on them. You put the list in a spreadsheet, share it, and people update the status as the issues are being worked on. There are trackers, etc. that can do such things, but Google allows you to do it right now, without planning, without setup. You just get the job done.)

It's nice that you can search through the contents your documents. Google Does Search... no surprise here.

The Bad
Although when using the desktop client, your files look as though they're on the local disk, clicking on one launches Chrome and opens the file for editing on the Web. This reveals the "file" to be little more than a link to the actual file on the Web. You can't just click on a .DOC file and edit it in Word, or LibreOffice, or whatever your preference is. That's a shame. When you click on a file type that's not supported by Google Docs, then you have to wait while the actual file is fetched from the Web... a real performance drag.

By comparison, DropBox actually synchronizes the file. It looks and acts like it's on your local drive because it is. It's snappy because of that, and synchronization is done in the background. It also means that you can never be cut off from your data because it's there, locally. Even if the Web is down, you're still productive with DropBox. Google Drive doesn't do that.

Sharing in Google Drive is the same as in Google Docs... in other words, clumsy. You go to the Web client, right-click on a doc, select Share, then Share (again), then select names from your contacts or type them in, yadda, yadda, yadda.

By comparison, DropBox allows you to create shared folders, but it also provides a Public folder that you simply drop files in to share them. You can right-click on your document right there in the desktop (no need to go to the Web interface) to retrieve the URL and send an email. IOW, Dropbox offers you to choose between security and easy access, and then makes the access really easy.

The Hype
This isn't new, or innovative, or earth-shatteringly important... or even terribly exciting, for that matter. As mentioned, there are plenty of offerings already out there. Google Drive mostly distinguishes itself by offering a lot of space, and by allowing multiple people to edit the same file simultaneously. What it gives with one hand (collaborative editing), it takes with the other (forcing you to edit supported filetypes on the Web).

Google is the King of Search, but here that's just not a really big deal... I'm already able to do everything that Google Drive offers in this regard using Recoll on Linux. Similar search engines (including Google Desktop) provide the same features on Windows, so document search is far from being the "killer feature" others gush about. It IS nice when you're searching through your docs on the Web, though.

My assessment...

Google Docs is a good thing... Google Drive is not really any different. And while I use it for collaboration (and there is where it shines), it's clumsy for most files, so I prefer Dropbox for synchronization. Although there's some overlap of functionality, Dropbox has the edge when it's the actual file and off-line access that I want. I don't plan on giving up either of them soon.