Google Docs Get Editable on Phones–or at Least a First Step in That Direction

By  |  Friday, February 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

googledocsGoogle Docs has added some features for doing basic spreadsheet editing and wrangling on a phone–you can use T-Mobile’s G1, the iPhone, or Nokia S60 devices–and I’m not sure whether to be impressed that it’s working at all, or fixated on how rudimentary it is to the spreadsheet tools that the full-blown Google Docs provides when you’re in a desktop browser.

The good news is that you can filter and sort rows in spreadsheets you’ve created in Google Docs. (As far as I can tell, there’s still no way to create a spreadsheet from scratch on a phone–these new features are for working with sheets you’ve created in full-strength Google Docs.) But while Google Docs’ slick use of AJAX techniques makes it feel much like a piece of desktop software when you run it on a computer, the phone version is nowhere near as zippy and interactive. It’s kind of like how the desktop version of Docs’ spreadsheet might have turned out if Google had tried to create it in 1996 or so. Each time you make a change, Docs needs to send your instructions back to Google’s servers, which then send updated data back.

Sorting and filtering work reasonably well, but editing data is clumsy. Rather than just clicking in a cell to enter data, you click an Edit link for an entire row, then slide your way over to the cell you want to change. The iPhone on-screen keyboard eats up half the real estate, and it can be tough to identify which column you’re in without a lot of panning back and forth. All in all, it might work for some quick spreadsheet tweaks, but you wouldn’t want to do any serious number crunching this way.

Google Docs Spreadsheet

Did I say that the issue with Google Docs on phones is that you needed to wait for Google’s servers to send data back? I lied–my biggest issue that they apparently don’t send data back in some cases. I tried out Docs’ new phone features using a real-world example I’ve implemented on multiple phone and PDA spreadsheets in the past: A simple little sheet for scoring miniature golf games, with a formula that keeps score as you enter scores for each hole. When I used the Edit links to enter scores hole-by-hole, the cells that tallied the scores didn’t update–making this incarnation of Google Docs perhaps the first spreadsheet in the history of spreadsheets without autocalc. I had to back out of the sheet then go back in before the formulas did their work–even though if I left the same spreadsheet open in Firefox, the scores autorefreshed as I made changes on the phone.

Some or all of Google Docs’ editing limitations may stem from basic issues with trying to do this fairly ambitious stuff on the still relatively crude browsers you get on phones. (I haven’t checked out the iPhone version of EditGrid, another Web spreadsheet, that’s been around for quite awhile now.) I’m still hankering for a word processor and spreadsheet on the iPhone that are as good as the ones I’ve had for years on Windows Mobile, Palm, Psion, and other pocket-sized platforms; I’ll keep an eye on Google Docs’ phone features, but for now, I’m more eager to see the iPhone versions of venerable mobile suites Documents to Go and QuickOffice. Both have been announced, but neither is available just yet.

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