On-the-go editing: Google Docs or dedicated apps?

Google Docs now allows editing on Android devices, iPhones, and iPads - is this a replacement for or complement to existing Office-style apps?

Google Docs has always offered a lot of potential to mobile users. On any PC, you can create, view, edit, and collaborate in documents in real-time. The feature interacts well with Office and other office-type programs. For users of mobile devices running Google’s Android of Apple’s iOS, the feature has been relegated to viewing documents without offering the ability to create or edit them.

Today, Google announced that it is rolling out the ability create, edit, and collaborate on documents using its cloud-based solution for Android, iPad, and iPhone users. The new interface supports “near real-time” editing and can be accessed app-free from any mobile browser pointed at http://docs.google.com. In addition to traditional document editing, Android users have the ability to add text via voice transcription.

Google's announcement includes a video illustrating the new features, but also noted that the rollout may not be available to all users in all areas immediately. Since I fall into that last category, I can’t yet vouch for the editing capabilities personally. However, based on the video, I can say that this is a massive feature addition. It has the potential to revolutionize the capabilities of supported mobile devices. In particular, the voice editing feature offers a big boon to Android users over many competing options. Overall, this is a great prosumer or business solution and is particularly attractive on low-cost devices like the LG Optimus One that I discussed yesterday.

That said, there are a number of apps for both Android and iOS that already offer Office-style suites. The most well-known is probably Apple’s iWork for the iPad. In my experience, the most well rounded suite is Quickoffice (available for iOS, Android, Blackberry, webOS, and Symbian – and also bundled with the new Barnes and Noble NOOKcolor). Other common options include the mobile version of Office bundled with the classic Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 as well as Documents to Go (available for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry).

The new editing capabilities of Google Docs for mobile pose an interesting question for mobile users: rely on a web-based solution or a native app (something I tackled today in looking at RIM’s PlayBook demo videos).

The advantage to Google Docs via mobile browser lie in the near real-time editing capabilities, a familiar interface for Google Docs users, and the lack of app purchase costs. For an organization (big or small) that relies on Google Docs Premier or Enterprise, this is a huge advantage. No added cost and working with the same interface/workspace as on the desktop.

For other users and organizations, a native app might be more attractive. Native apps are available regardless of connectivity, can rely on local storage or storage solutions other than Google (Dropbox and company file/web servers come immediately to mind), and may offer some more advanced editing capabilities. The range of remote storage and sync options supported by Quickoffice (which includes Google Docs) has always made it an attractive candidate over competing products.

While there’s room to debate whether Google Docs mobile or a native app is better (I can’t debate that question effectively yet), one of the big advantages of this move is that users and businesses have the choice of either approach. Depending on needs, workflow, available resources, and so on, user can opt for the solution that works best for them. And that type of choice may be the biggest advantage that Google’s latest move has to offer.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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