15 years ago, if you were writing a document, you were probably doing it in Microsoft Word. Part of the company’s highly successful Office suite, Word has been the realistic choice for text drafting, whether you’re an author, office worker, student, teacher…you get the point.
But on October 11, 2006, Google officially launched Google Docs and Sheets in beta. As with everything from Google, Docs and Sheets were cloud-based apps that also let you collaborate with others in real time. It’s easy to forget now, but this was very different from the way most people work on documents back then.
I was in a different profession 15 years ago that required me to work on a lot of spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations accessed on a shared network drive. Giving it to others for editing and feedback was a risky process. Make sure you get most recent The version of the document typically includes six-digit numbers representing the date it was last modified, the initials of a note who checked it out, and adding messy notes to the end until you hit something insanely complex like “April_Report_051504_NI_final_final_reallyfinal.doc.”
15 years later, I’m writing this story in a Google Doc shared with my editors; They can make as many changes as they want to the final parts of the draft as I keep writing here and nothing is lost. Collaboration is a lot better than it used to be, and Google Docs is a big part of that – but getting here wasn’t always easy.
Sam Schillas, its creator, said in an interview with Google Docs, that it started out as a “breakthrough experiment together.” the edge In 2013. Eight years ago, he created a tool called Writely, a web-based text editing platform. Google bought the company in March of 2006. According to Schillas, 90 percent of the company was using Writely after just one month. “When we went to Google, Writely was adopted internally very quickly,” he said. Just seven months later, Google officially released Docs and Sheets at the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco. As with most Google products at the time, it was released in beta for free.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t on par with what Microsoft was offering with Office. The text editor was, relatively speaking, very simple. But most importantly, Google Docs only works when you have an active internet connection. Although good broadband has been fairly common in workplaces and universities, it can be hard to find when you venture out into the world. If you want to get some work done while traveling, say on a plane, Google Docs isn’t a start.
It didn’t take Google long to realize that it needed to come up with a way to sync documents with a computer for offline access. In May of 2007, on the first “World Developers Day,” the company introduced Google Gears. Gears was an open source project and browser extension for Mac, Windows, and Linux operating systems that would help web applications run offline. While the project was intended for any developer to use, its use of Google Docs made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, it was not the most stable tool. In late 2009, Google halted development of Gears in favor of using the capabilities offered by HTML 5. But while Google continues to support apps that use Gears, it’s possible that the technology transition hasn’t helped the company get Docs and its broader certified suite in Business and educational institutions.
Around this time, Google was testing a variety of ways to push collaboration and communication forward – Documents was just one of the success stories. There have been failures though, the most famous of which was Google Wave – an ambitious mix of instant messaging, email, documents, multimedia, and more. It was promoted by the tech press, to the point that Google Wave invitations were sold on eBay. But interest declined rapidly, in large part because the final product looked less like a finished product than most Google “beta” versions.
Google didn’t do a great job of explaining the exact problem this new tool was designed to solve, and the company pulled the plug in 2010, just a year later. But many of the things Google tried at Wave ended up living elsewhere. In fact, around the time Google finished development on Wave, the company added chat to Google Docs, allowing people with the same file to open a discussion of what they were working on alongside the same content.
Google Docs has obviously evolved after its early struggles. Google has put a somewhat surprising amount of focus on the product over the past decade and more, incrementally iterating and improving it at a steady pace. This is the hallmark of products that Google seems to really believe in. It’s the same way the company handled Android, Chrome (both the browser and the operating system), Drive, Photos, and of course, Search, and Gmail.
As Internet access has become more widespread, the fact that Docs (like most Google products) performs better online has been less of a hindrance. You don’t have to worry about saving the document, it took a while to get used to, but it’s something we take for granted now – if your browser crashes, whatever you’ve been working on is still waiting for you in the cloud.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Google’s cloud strategy first came in 2010, when Microsoft took its first steps toward offering Office applications online. For a long time, Google’s suite of apps has been more suited to the cloud. For example, you can’t have multiple people working on the same Office document until late 2013, something that’s been included in Google Docs since day one. Apple also followed Google’s lead, bringing iWork apps online in 2013, and eventually enabling simultaneous collaboration as well.
While Office is still dominant in the workplace, it’s fair to say that Google gave Microsoft its first real competition in many years. Google has some giant clients, such as Salesforce, Whirlpool, Twitter and Spotify. Google’s apps, along with its inexpensive Chromebooks and educational platform, have made the company a force in the K-12 space as well as in higher education.
For the next fifteen years, it is quite certain that remote collaborative work will continue to be very important. That was clear before COVID-19, and the past 18 months have torpedoed the idea that everyone needed to go to the office. To get a good idea of the direction of collaborative work, consider Microsoft’s open source Fluid framework. First announced in May of 2019, Fluid aims to remove barriers between different file formats and make it easier to pull content from a variety of sources. Microsoft described it as a way to share small data components across multiple files – so if you’re updating a spreadsheet in one document, you can link to that content in another file and it will automatically reflect those changes.
Dropbox didn’t create its own “mini components” of documents, but its Paper app works in a similar way. It’s as collaborative as Google Docs, but it supports a wide range of content plugins, so you can embed YouTube videos, Google Calendar items, Figma documents, to-do lists, Trello lists, and even entire Google Docs.
Microsoft has been developing Fluid, taking small steps since its initial release. Earlier this year, the company announced that some Fluid components would work in its Teams communications platform. I think moving content out of strict platforms like Google Docs or Microsoft Office to all the other places we work would be another important step forward.
This has already happened to some extent. For years now, Dropbox has supported creating, sharing, and editing Microsoft Office documents directly within the app and its website, and later added similar support for Google Docs as well. And apps like Slack have a range of integrations for things like Google Drive and Trello, though it’s not clear how widespread or important they are to Slack’s workflow. (I often drop links to Google Docs that I need to edit.)
Somewhat ironically, as the barriers between content and file types fade and more people work in virtual spaces like Teams and Slack, Google’s vision for Wave seems rather prescient. The idea of having a space for a project or team that includes all of its important elements, be it written documents, spreadsheets, images, videos, or any other type of content, seems to be where we’re headed. But despite the fact that Google (and the rest of the industry) is moving backwards toward models reminiscent of what Wave tried, there’s still a missing piece of Google’s strategy.
This piece is a message, and it’s something Google has struggled with, well, for the whole time Google has been around. It has also been extensively detailed by Ars TechnicaGoogle has not been able to commit to a coherent messaging plan for consumers or businesses. At one point, Google Chat (née Hangouts) could have been a strong competitor to Slack, as well as the web that connects all the content people work on, but the company missed the boat as Slack consolidated its dominance over the past five years. Although Google Workspace has a huge user base, it hasn’t made headway on the messaging side – which is what brings the modern workplace together.
However, Google’s Smart Canvas (announced at I/O this year) could be its own version of Fluid, a way to unify disparate forms of content and communication in one place. From what we’ve seen so far, Smart Canvas has different “building blocks” that you can collect all in one panel – like a Meet call along with a Google Doc for taking notes and a to-do list for assigning items to team members. It’s only being rolled out on a limited payout basis to Google Workspace customers, but it’s definitely worth a look to see how it evolves.
No one can really say what other cultural shifts in the workplace, such as those brought about by COVID-19, will occur in the next 15 years. Perhaps these shifts will drive the most significant changes in products for the business.
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