Going Google (apps) Part 3: Share/collaborate

Woody Leonhard

If you’ve ever tried to share documents or struggled with merging edits from multiple collaborators, Google’s productivityapps make the process easy.

Here’s how to share and collaborate with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides — three apps that are both capable and free.

The two previous articles in this “Going Google (apps)” series — “Part 1: Move your mail” and “Part 2: Move your docs” — have generated more than the usual amount of reader comments, especially among long-entrenched Office users. (I’ve used Office since its beginnings — making me, until recently, very entrenched.)

For many Office users, some missing features will make using Google’s productivity apps a nonstarter. For example: Yes, Google Docs does not have anything like MS Word’s Document Map. No, there are no pivot tables in Google Sheets and cell data does not automatically flow into an adjacent empty cell. True, you can’t go back and retrieve an email you deleted three years ago. If Google apps don’t provide some feature you can’t live without, that’s cool. Stick with Office.

On the other hand, Google apps provide a viable — and cheap — Office alternative if your productivity-app needs are relatively simple. And in some instances — particularly sharing and collaborating — Google’s apps are surprisingly capable. They’re also easy to set up and use; they work the first time, every time; and they don’t freeze (unless, of course, your browser does). And even if Windows crashes, Google saves your edits nearly continuously, so you never lose more than the last few seconds of changes.

To that, I add the liberating experience of viewing and working on Google documents on mobile devices such as the iPads, iPhones, and Galaxy Note I own.

Some readers expressed concerns over privacy and storing their data in the cloud. How can you trust a company that readily admits scanning all your email? It’s a good point — I hear ya. I’ll be tackling the privacy issues, which are thorny, in a future article in this series.

Others are concerned that Google could lock you out of your own data. It’s extremely unusual, but it does happen — as Tienlong Ho reported in a Last Word On Nothing blog. You can mitigate that problem by keeping local backups of files created with Google apps. Use the Google Takeout tool (more info) or one of the growing number of third-party apps.

So yes, Google apps have their drawbacks. But so, too, does Office. It’s good to have the choice.

‘Going Google (apps)’ recap — and what’s next

The first article in this series showed how to move from Outlook and other email systems to Gmail — without giving up your current email address. The second article showed you how to move your Office documents (Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations) to the Google Drive cloud and convert them to native Google-app formats.

In this article, I show you how to share documents now sitting in Google Drive. I’ll also discuss collaboration — how two or more persons can simultaneously edit different parts of the same document.

Most file-synching services are great — for keeping files updated on your own devices. But collaboration is not their strength. For example, if you currently use Dropbox to share files with others, you might be weary of getting partially out-of-sync files with conflicting copy warnings added to the file name (e.g., Accounts Payable 2013 02 (MyLenovo’s conflicted copy 2013-03-02).xls). Dropbox creates those files when two people have the same file open and one or both of them save their edits.

On the other hand, I’m impressed with the way Google approaches collaboration. As long as a file is in a native Google format — Docs, Sheets, or Slides — when two or more users have the file open, any changes are quickly (within seconds) and automatically propagated to everyone. You can see what your collaborators are doing, in real time. And collaborators can be working simultaneously on any device (Windows PC, Mac, tablet, or phone) with a browser or device-specific Google app. There’s just one document — no copies, conflicted or otherwise.

For business users, Google Drive’s collaboration tools are remarkably inexpensive. (It’s free for personal use.)

Here’s how to make Google sharing and collaboration work.

File/folder sharing: A few simple settings

For the following Google sharing/collaboration steps, I assume you already have files created in (or migrated to) Google apps in Google Drive. If you don’t, I recommend going back to Part 2 of this series before continuing here. (If you’ve installed Google Drive on your Windows PC, you can drag and drop files and folders into it via Windows Explorer.)

  • If you haven’t already, sign in to Google Drive.
  • Navigate to the file or folder you want to share. Right-click on it, select Share, and then click Share. (Yes, you’re selecting Share twice.) You should see the Sharing settings dialog, as shown in Figure 1.

    Google Drive sharing

    Figure 1. Google Drive's Sharing settings dialog box

  • Decide how you want to share the file or folder. By default, Google Drive wants to set up Private sharing — only people who have a Google account and whom you’ve added to a list (the Add people box) can access the file or folder. Those who are granted Private access need to have the link highlighted in the Sharing settings box at the top, and they need to be able to sign in to an account you put on the list.

    You can also make the file or folder available to collaborators who don’t have a Google account. To do so, click Change link; another dialog box will open with two more options: make the file/folder completely public, or give anyone with the link access. Pick one of the options and go to the next step.

  • If you picked either the public or link option, a new control — Access (see Figure 2) — will appear in the dialog box.

    Access control

    Figure 2. Setting the visibility level for a shared file or folder to Anyone with the link or Private pops up the Access level control.

    If you want to restrict others only to viewing the file/folder, leave the Access setting at Can view, as shown in Figure 2. Click the Can view link, and you can also allow others to make edits or add comments. When you’re done, click Save.

  • Back in the Sharing settings box, before clicking Done, copy the lengthy link you see near the top of the box. Send the link to your collaborators via email, text message, or whatever means you prefer.

Collaboration: As easy as opening a file

Anyone receiving a link simply clicks it to go to the shared file or folder. If you have Private access enforced, the recipient then needs to sign in with the proper Google account. If you used Anyone with the Link or Public on the Web, they’ll have immediate access to the shared data.

Clicking a shared file automatically launches the appropriate Google app (assuming it’s in a native Google format) — and you’re off to the races. If you enabled Can view, they can see anything in the document but not make changes; with Can edit enabled, they can immediately start plunking away at the file.

If more than one person has the file open at the same time, multicolored indicators show where everyone is working in the document. For example, if you have a Sheets spreadsheet open, your location (the cells currently selected) is shown with a blue outline; your collaborators’ selected cells show up with a red outline. Any changes show up within seconds in everyone’s instance of the spreadsheet.

You might want to practice this a bit before working on important documents. Play around with dueling edits — see whose edits, typed in simultaneously, take precedence over another’s. In general, it’s easy to stay on top of the changes — in real time on your netbook, MacBook Air, iPhone, Galaxy Tab, or other Web-connected device.

In the next Going Google column, I’ll fill in some of the gaps with mail, contacts, and calendars. It’s easy to keep everything synchronized on every computer you own. I’ll also cover how to make backup copies of your Gmail messages and store them locally — in Outlook, if you feel so inclined.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.