How Google Docs Works

What can Google Docs do?

Google Docs word processor
The Google Docs word processing application emulates many of the basic functions of traditional desktop software.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

At its heart, Google Docs is a suite of online productivity software. That means it's a collection of applications that make it easier to produce the kinds of files commonly used in corporate environments: documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

The Google word processing program started out as a product named Writely created by a company called Upstartle. Google acquired Upstartle in 2006 and began the process of converting Writely into a Google-branded product [source: InformationWeek]. The program allows users to create and edit documents online. Multiple users can access the document at the same time, making it easier for teams to collaborate on projects.


Likewise, the spreadsheet function in Google Docs started out as another company's project. A startup company called XL2Web developed a collaboration application called 2Web Technologies. Google acquired XL2Web and gave the team the resources they needed to develop the spreadsheets application [source: Business Review]. Like most spreadsheet programs, Google's application allows users to create tables, charts and graphs. The application has most of the basic functions of desktop spreadsheet programs, including sorting, filtering and formula calculations.

The story is much the same for the presentation application in Google Docs. Google acquired Tonic Systems, a company that developed a suite of Java-based presentation software. Tonic's development team transitioned to Google and modified the software to integrate with the rest of Google's products [source: The Official Google Blog].

The resulting application looks like a basic desktop presentation program. Presentations consist of slides. There are five basic slide layouts users can choose when building a presentation. Google also gives users more than a dozen choices in presentation themes. The application also includes basic functions like image and video support, autoshapes and text boxes.

None of the applications within the Google Docs suite are as robust or versatile as the leading desktop productivity software packages. But Google updates the suite often, adding new features and capabilities. While the applications don't have all the bells and whistles of other software packages, they do meet basic user needs. And while Google Docs might not do everything other products can do, it does have several features that set it apart from the rest of the pack.

What are those features? And what sort of limitations do users have with Google Docs? Find out in the next section.