Thursday, April 28, 2011

Android gets Google Docs app

Google has finally released a Google Docs app for Android smartphones and tablets. For many Android users this is welcome news. GMail was integrated from the very beginning, and Google Calendar and picture syncing with Picasa Web was already in place for a long time. But anyone wishing to access or edit their documents on the go had to either access GDocs through the browser or a third party app. Now Google have made the process of accessing documents stored in the cloud that much easier. But users in some parts of the world, such as China, are excluded.

Google Docs for Android is essentially a shell wrapped around the mobile version of Docs for the browser. It consists of menus designed to make finding and working with documents easier to do by touch. Swiping from menu to menu is fluid and works well and pinch & zoom is incorporated into many aspects of its design.

The Docs app also allows users to upload content from their phone and open documents directly from Gmail. A widget can be added to the home screen for easy access to three core tasks: jumping to starred documents, taking a photo to upload, or creating a new document with one tap.

OCR support

Much of what is available in the desktop version is available in the Android app with a few added extras. There is a new ability to capture notes using the device's camera. After capturing, notes can be edited with text to augment the image. Google Docs can also use OCR [Optical Character Recognition] to convert text contained in captured images into a text document, similar to Evernote.

How well this works in practice, especially as regards foreign languages, remains to be seen. On its blog Google says the built in OCR "does a pretty good job capturing unformatted text in English but won't recognize handwriting or some fonts - stay tuned, it will get better over time!"

Voices of disappointment

While GDocs for Android is certainly a step in the right direction, there are already some voices of disappointment. A number have complained that the interface is little different from the web interface. Others have pointed out that they cannot see docs in offline mode, only a list of them, and question what the cache setting is for. While many people use Android devices with a data connection, there is a high percentage of users who make use of available WiFi connections, especially when travelling. Offline viewing end editing would thus be of great benefit in such situations.

The biggest failure of any app is the user interface. For Android smartphone users the app will be useful in order to access documents and make small changes. But due to the size of the screen and keyboard, it is unlikely that users will use a smartphone to type anything more than a few notes. On a tablet, GDocs is well placed, and the release of this application is likely timed with the emergence of a number of Android tablets hitting the market. A demonstration of the application can be seen on YouTube.

No access in China

The biggest disappointment is that users in China are effectively excluded from this technology. Google Docs in both http and https modes has been blocked for the last 8 months and this new app will not work in China. While it downloads and installs without issue, it cannot update and refresh the document list since Google Docs is blocked by the Great Firewall of China. A VPN is little use for many as PPTP and L2TP have been blocked since early march. The iPhone allows IPSec which is a little more robust, but unfortunately Android does not have this option.

While Android has made some inroads in China, many of the applications familiar with users around the world simply will not work. All the social networking apps such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Foursquare are just pretty icons on an Android device in China. A VPN rarely works since many such services have themselves been targeted by China's censors.

For Chinese users, these blocks are or little consequences since there are many Chinese equivalents, Sina Weibo, Xiaonei, Youku and Jiepang, and their respective applications.

Threat from Baidu

But there is another threat to Google's flagship mobile operating system. Part of Google's strength in foisting Android on the world market was open-sourcing, which allows anyone to create and develop applications. But open-source is a double-edged sword. The free and "open" Android platform has been a boon to Google in most places around the globe, but in China the story is somewhat different.

The Next Web reports that Baidu has proposed to increase its own dominance by persuading manufacturers to pre-install a Baidu search box application to Android smartphones distributed in China instead of the current Google standard.

Despite losing the search game on desktops in China, Google is winning when it comes to its open-source mobile operating system. But this openness is allows Google's competitors to take the advantage and a give companies such as Baidu the ability load its search application to the operating system. By December 2010, around 50% of smartphones in China were running on Android, a staggering increase from zero in 2009.

China has almost 900 million mobile users, about three times the entire US population. With Android, Google regained some of the market after being all but ousted from the PC search market by Chinese government favouritism of Baidu and hacking. But trading inside China has many pitfalls. Favouritism, protectionism, intellectual property theft and censorship being just a few.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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