You know how when you go to the supermarket on Thursday or Friday, and a representative of one of the food manufacturers is giving away little samples of humous or juice or foie gras (I shop in a very upscale market), do you take what they're offering "for free," or do you walk on by?
Me, I'm a walker. Yes, the sample is free - i.e., you are under no obligation whatsoever to buy anything - but there's always a price to pay. Like the dirty look you get from that generous sample distributor if you don't pick up a half dozen of whatever they're hawking when you pass the display. Some people just don't care; they just shoot back their own dirty look. But I'm too simple a soul to get into that kind of psychological warfare. If someone's giving something away now, they'll probably try to sell me something later - and, whether out of guilt or don't rock the boat-ness, I'll probably end up buying it from them.
So it was with a little trepidation that I clicked on the new link in a Gmail message I got the other day that contained a Microsoft Word attachment someone sent me. Besides the two usual buttons that accompany these attachments I had come to know and love - "Download" or "View as HTML" - a third possibility appeared. "Open as a Google Document," the button cajoled - and I did, for better or worse.
As a computer savvy type, I had known about Google Docs for a while. If you have a Gmail account, you're eligible to use the free Google Docs (http://docs.google.com), as well as Google Spreadsheets (at the same link). Google began this free service several months ago, after acquiring a company called Writely, which specialized in on-line word processing.
The thing about Google Docs is this: It's fully compatible with Microsoft Word, able to open Word files and write to Word format. So, technically speaking, you could do all your word processing on-line using Google Docs for free, and dispense with Office altogether, saving hundreds or thousands (of dollars or shekels), and still be able to word process all you want (ditto for spreadsheets). While you might not want to run a business off Google Docs, it seems perfect for home use - especially if you have an always-connected ADSL or cable modem for your Internet connection.
Google isn't the only service to offer this, by the way; there are several competitors. Among the more popular are ThinkFree (http://www.thinkfree.com), AjaxWrite (http://us.ajax13.com/en/ajaxwrite/), which is only compatible with Firefox browsers (but ironically opens and saves MS Word docs), and Zoho Office (http://www.zoho.com). I, of course, have tried them all, and each has its own little advantage - and disadvantage - as far as performance goes. For example, ThinkFree's word processor has some very sophisticated formatting tools, but be prepared to wait for them to load. AjaxWrite was very neat and hi-tech looking, but Internet Explorer users need not apply. And Zoho had a more advanced overall package than Google Docs, offering full collaboration and on-line/off-line editing in MS Word using a special plug-in.
But Google Docs made the most sense, mostly because it was very easy to use, had a familiar Word interface (actually, it was easier to understand than Word, because some of the off-line word processor's functions that usually reside deep within nested menus that are hard to find are in easier to access places), and I was already a Gmail user, which made signing up simple (i.e., I didn't have to sign up). Plus, it was fast - definitely faster than any other service, and I deliberately used an older Celeron computer to check this out. And, in addition, it writes to PDF format, another much sought-after and usually very expensive (via Adobe Acrobat) software feature.
You do have to be a Gmail user to take advantage of Google Docs, and to get into Gmail you have to be invited. However, you don't have to start bringing home-baked goods into work to butter up a co-worker to get them to invite you; just surf on over to http://www.bytetest.com/ and sign up for one of the 15,000 or so free accounts they can set you up with (then, when you're signed up, don't forget to "donate" some of the 100 invites you get with your account back to them). But of course, Gmail is free, as is Google Docs - and both work on any platform.
Google Docs sounds like the perfect setup. Yeah - a little too perfect! It's not privacy I'm worried about - I'm sure the Google people have better things to do than read my pathetic chicken-scratchings. But there's gotta be a catch - there always is. Nobody gives away something this good for free, expecting nothing in return. One day, I'll figure out the catch - but until then, I'm a Google Docs man all the way.