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15 years of Google Docs, and where the next 15 might take us

15 years of Google Docs, and where the next 15 might take us

15 years ago, if you were writing a document, chances are you were doing it in Microsoft Word. Part of the company’s wildly successful Office suite, Word was the de-facto option for drafting text, whether you were an author, an office worker, a student, a teacher… you get the point.

But on October 11th, 2006, Google officially launched Google Docs and Spreadsheets in beta. As with everything Google, Docs and Sheets were cloud-based applications that also let you collaborate with others in real time. It’s easy to forget now, but this was completely different from how most people worked on documents at the time.

I was in a different career 15 years ago, one that required me to work on lots of spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations that were accessed in a shared network drive. Submitting them to others for edits and notes was a fraught process. Making sure you had the most current version of the document usually involved six-digit numbers representing the last date it was modified, initials to note who had checked it out, and messy notes added to the end until you landed on something insanely convoluted 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 finished parts of the draft as I keep typing away here and nothing will get lost. Collaborative work is a lot better than it used to be, and Google Docs is a big part of that – but it wasn’t always smooth sailing to get here.

Google Docs began as a “hacked together experiment,” its creator Sam Schillace said in an interview with The Verge in 2013. Eight years earlier, he created a tool called Writely, a web-based text editing platform. Google bought the company in March of 2006. According to Schillace, 90 percent of the company was using Writely only a month later. “When we went to Google, Writely was internally adopted very quickly,” he said. Barely seven months after that, 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.

Google Docs 2006

TechCrunch / Google

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t quite up to par with what Microsoft was offering with Office. The text editor was, comparatively speaking, very simple. But more importantly, Google Docs only worked when you had an active internet connection. While good broadband was fairly common in workplaces and universities, it was far less easy to find when you ventured out into the world. If you wanted to get some work while traveling, say on an airplane, Google Docs was a non-starter.

It didn’t take Google long to realize it needed to come up with a way to sync documents to a computer for offline access. In May of 2007, at its first “worldwide developer day,” the company introduced Google Gears. Gears was an open-source project and browser extension for Mac, Windows and Linux that would help web apps work with no internet connection. While the project was meant for any developer to use, using it for Google Docs made perfect sense.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most stable tool. In late 2009, Google stopped development on Gears in favor of using the capabilities afforded by HTML 5. But even though Google continued supporting applications that used Gears, a technology transition probably didn’t do the company any favors in getting Docs and its broader app suite adopted in businesses and education institutions.

Around this time, Google was experimenting with a variety of ways to push collaboration and communication forward — Docs was just one of the success stories. There were failures though, the most high-profile of which was Google Wave — an ambitious combination of instant messaging, email, documents, multimedia and more. It was hyped by the tech press, so much that Google Wave invites were being sold on eBay. But interest dropped off quickly, in large part because it felt like even less of a finished product than most of Google’s “beta” launches.

Google Wave 2009

Google / Engadget

Google didn’t do a great job explaining exactly what problem this new tool was designed to solve, and the company pulled the plug in 2010, after only a year. But many of the things Google experimented with in Wave ended up living on in other places. Indeed, right around the time Google ended development on Wave, the company added chat to Google Docs, letting people who had the same file open discuss what they were working on right alongside the content itself.

Google Docs clearly evolved past its early struggles, though. Google put a somewhat surprising amount of focus on the product over the last decade-plus, incrementally iterating and improving it at a steady pace. That’s the hallmark of products Google seems to really believe in. It’s the same way the company treated Android, Chrome (both the browser and OS), Drive, Photos, and, of course, Search and Gmail.

As internet access has become more and more widespread, the fact that Docs (like most of Google’s products) works best online was less of a hindrance. Not having to worry about saving a document took a while to get used to, but it’s something that we take for granted now — if your browser crashes, whatever you were working on should still be there waiting for you in the cloud.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Google’s cloud-first strategy came in 2010, when Microsoft took its first steps towards bringing Office applications online. For a long time, though, Google’s suite of apps were better-suited to the cloud. For example, you couldn’t have multiple people working on the same Office document until late 2013, something that was built into Google Docs from day one. Apple also followed Google’s lead, bringing its iWork apps online in 2013 and eventually enabling simultaneous collaboration as well.

While Office remains dominant in the workplace, it’s fair to say that Google gave Microsoft its first real competition in many years. Google has some giant customers, like Salesforce, Whirlpool, Twitter and Spotify. And Google’s apps, combined with inexpensive Chromebooks and its education platform, have made the company a force in the K-12 space as well as in higher education.

As for the next 15 years, it’s all but assured that collaborative and remote working will continue to be hugely important. That was clear before COVID-19, and the last 18 months have basically blown up the notion that everyone needs to go to an office. For a good idea of where collaborative work is going, consider Microsoft’s open-source Fluid framework. First announced in May of 2019, Fluid is meant to remove the barriers between different file formats and make it easy to pull in content from a wide variety of sources. Microsoft described it as a way to share atomized components of data across multiple files — so if you’re updating a spreadsheet in one document, you can link to that content in another file and it’ll automatically reflect those changes.

Dropbox hasn’t come up with its own “atomized components” of documents, but its Paper app works in a similar fashion. They’re collaborative like Google Docs, but they support a wide range of content plug-ins, so you can embed YouTube videos, Google Calendar elements, Figma documents, to-do lists, Trello lists, and even entire Google Docs.

Microsoft has been deliberate about developing Fluid, taking small steps since its initial release. Earlier this year, the company announced that some Fluid components would work in its communications platform Teams. I think that content moving outside of strict platforms like Google Docs or Microsoft Office into all the other places that we do work is going to be another important step forward.

That’s already happened to some degree. For years now, Dropbox has supported creating, sharing, and editing Microsoft Office documents right inside its own app and website, and it later added similar support for Google Docs as well. And apps like Slack have a host of integrations for things like Google Drive and Trello, though it’s not clear how widely used or essential they are to a Slack workflow. (I mostly just drop links to Google Docs I need edited.)

Somewhat ironically, as the barriers between content and file types fall away and more people do work in virtual spaces like Teams and Slack, Google’s vision for Wave looks to be rather prescient. The notion of a space for a project or team that encompasses all of its important elements, be they written documents, spreadsheets, images, videos or any other kind of content seems to be where we’re headed. But despite the fact that Google (and the rest of the industry) are moving back towards models that remind us of what Wave attempted, there’s still a missing piece in Google’s strategy.

That piece is messaging, something Google has struggled with, well, for about as long as Google has existed. As exhaustively detailed by Ars Technica, Google has never been able to stick with a coherent messaging plan for consumers or businesses. At some point, Google Chat (née Hangouts) could have been a solid Slack competitor, as well as the web that connects all the content people work on, but the company missed the boat as Slack solidified its dominance over the past five years. Even though Google Workspace has a huge user base, it hasn’t made inroads in the messaging side — which is what pulls a modern workplace together.

That said, 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 all in one place. From what we’ve seen so far, Smart Canvas has various “building blocks” that you can pull all into a single canvas — like a Meet call alongside a Google Doc for taking notes and a to-do list to assign items to team members. It’s only rolling out on a limited basis to paying Google Workspace customers, but it’s definitely worth watching to see how it evolves.

No one can really say what other cultural workplace shifts, like those brought on by COVID-19, will happen in the next 15 years. And those shifts are probably what will drive the most significant changes in products meant for work.

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