In 2006, when Google introduced what would later become Google docs, the company basically wanted to make Microsoft Word in the cloud, meaning you could share files easily, and access them from any device. Today, you’ll find Google docs used by companies and schools all over the world.
It’s safe to say that since its launch, Google docs has changed the way we write, work, and learn. That’s what the company intended. But it’s also safe to say that Google docs has made us really comfortable in the cloud—maybe too comfortable.
Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim spoke to emerging industries reporter Scott Nover about all the innovative ways Google docs have been used over the last few decades. Read the full transcript of the episode.
What differentiated Google Docs from Microsoft Word?
Scott Nover: So if I bought a computer in 2006, maybe I bought a MacBook, I would also buy a big copy of Microsoft Office, which probably would cost me about $100, $150 for a CD that would go into my CD drive, and I would install it. And that was the model for the consumer-facing Microsoft Office. And workplaces would get a company subscription to that. What Google did in 2006 was buy a small company called Writely and make their own version of that. Google docs is essentially a carbon copy of Microsoft Word, and Google spreadsheets or Google sheets is basically a carbon copy of Microsoft Excel, slides and PowerPoint. They put that on the web for free. And then they also let multiple people edit it at the same time.
I think the interactivity is behind all of it. Before Google docs, you couldn’t really collaborate in a meaningful way on a word processing document or spreadsheet. You would write your file, and you would save it, and you would hope that it actually saved, and you would send it over to the next person, maybe they would send it back with some changes. And then you would go like that. And Google docs really streamlined that process. So it’s hard to exactly know what Google’s intention was, you know, other than really keeping everyone using Google products and building a new line of revenue. But they effectively changed how we work and collaborate in real time.
How are Google docs used today?
Scott Nover: I think there’s a few really interesting use cases. First, it’s kind of a social media for these kids that are going to school using these products. There was a fascinating piece in The Atlantic a few years ago about how kids in schools are using the chat functions on Google docs to kind of essentially pass notes without, you know, folding up a Post-It and throwing it across the room. Or if they’re being watched, they would write in the Google doc and then delete it in real time, and just use it as kind of like a shared notepad. So that’s, I think, fascinating. There’s also a lot of like, mass broadcasting that happens on Google docs for political purposes or other sort of organizing purposes. You can make a Google doc that is updated in real time and share it with the world. I saw a lot of that after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer in response to the killing of George Floyd. There were a lot of resource documents and kind of calls to action and some other kind of—I just saw Google docs being used in innovative ways to get the word out in a kind of a time of crisis, when information was changing, where the owners could send out this document and update it in real time, educate people based on, you know, new cases that they were looking at and things to be aware of. It was a really powerful tool at the time. And then I’ve also seen it as a really interesting union organizing space for workers who are trying to collaborate on what they want and what they want from their company. The only thing I would say is, if you are trying to do that, make sure you’re not logged into your workplace’s account when you’re doing that, because that could spell trouble if they have access to that.
How secure is the cloud?
Scott Nover: I think the most consequential thing that Google docs did—and when I say Google docs, I mean Gmail, and Google docs, and sheets, and this entire suite—it really rapidly accelerated our path to browser-based, always-online, cloud-based life and computing. So everything has gone from being, you know, there’s a joke in Zoolander about the files are in the computer, and they’re shaking the computer to find it—to, you know, it existing in the cloud, which is, sounds mysterious, but what you need to know about that is, it’s not just on your computer, it’s on your computer no matter where you access it. And it’s in a data storage center somewhere in the world. That is a good thing, and it’s a bad thing, depending on security, and who has access to it, and privacy, and maybe advertising. There is just more data that is everywhere and accessible everywhere, as opposed to files lost in your old iMac or something. Or Dell.
What happens to your Google docs when you die?
Scott Nover: There’s tons of tools right now to kind of make sure that your ‘digital legacy’ lives on. People think a lot about wills, and about what they’re passing on and their you know, their furniture and their jewelry and their car and other kind of real-life things, but not so much about their online life. And so a lot of people pass away and don’t think about what happens to something that might be in their email if their loved one can’t access it. Luckily, there’s a way to set this up. And I just did it yesterday, actually. So you can go into your settings in Google, and, you know, click on something that says ‘Make a plan for your digital legacy.’And then you can select a person, I put in my fiancee’s email address and her phone number, and God forbid I die, she will have access to my Gmail account, and my documents, and all of that good stuff. It’s incredibly morbid, but it’s actually really important to think about these things, Facebook has a tool to do something similar. A lot of social media companies, a lot of internet companies, have tools to kind of plan for the worst-case scenario, or the inevitable, you know, however morbid you want to get. But it’s super important.
What do you think could kill Google docs?
Scott Nover: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I think that the market is dominated by these two products, Microsoft Word and Google docs, that are identical. I mean, there’s very little difference. I think PowerPoint is just a better product than slides. But the other two are basically the same thing. So I don’t know, I think if anything could ‘kill’ them, it’d be something that looks very different and is not a carbon copy of the same exact software. But we haven’t really seen that.
What’s one useful tip?
Scott Nover: All right, this is super practical and it always blows people’s minds when they don’t know it. If you’re on Chrome, you can start a new document just by typing doc.new. If you go to your Chrome browser and type doc.new, it will open a new document. You can open sheets the same way—sheets.new will open a new Google sheet. Slides.new.