I want you to take a look at a demo of Google Docs. It’s a fast way to be introduced to the concept of editing and storing documents online.

When I look in my crystal ball, my prediction has changed from last year. It now looks likely that small businesses and small law firms will not be storing any significant quantities of documents online in the near future. You’ll be using online files as a convenience, not as your primary file storage. I had hoped to be saying something different but Microsoft has dropped the ball badly, a story I’ll tell you sometime soon. But don’t put the idea out of your mind: it’s still an important new tool and it could be tremendously useful for quick collaboration or for easy access to files from outside the office.

The Google Docs demo will start immediately when you click the link, no login required. You’ll be in a word processor that looks something like Microsoft Word 2003. The tools aren’t very deep but basic formatting is completely natural. The same thing is true for spreadsheets and presentations (think of a simplified Powerpoint). If you invite someone to join you by sending them the link on the demo page, you’ll be able to concurrently edit the same document in real time, which is rather remarkable. After you’ve looked at the demo, go take a quick look at the tour of the basic features.

You should already have a Google ID; if not, take this occasion to set one up. (Here are some short notes about Google accounts.) Go to the main Google Docs page and make sure you’re logged in and the page is greeting you by name in the upper right corner. You can upload any kind of file and store it there, displaying it with a single click and retrieving it later from any computer. This is good but not necessarily better than using Dropbox or Microsoft’s soon-to-be-revamped Skydrive for the same purpose.

If you click on a Word .DOC file after you upload it to Google Docs, it will load up in the online editor and you’ll be able to edit it in your web browser. If the document has much formatting it probably won’t look quite right, but it’s close and the convenience of editing it online might outweigh that. The online editor is certainly good enough for quick and dirty document creation from scratch.

It’s interesting and useful for simple projects, and the real-time collaboration is impressive. Put it to use if it suits you, but that’s not why I bring it to your attention. I want you to notice something else about Google Docs:

Google Docs is incredibly fast.

Take a look at it with that in mind. Uploads go fast. Pages load fast. Saving files is fast. The whole experience has been speeded up to the point that the processing is transparent.

In a week, Microsoft will release Office 2010; one of its selling points is its integration with Office Web Apps, the Microsoft service that will let you store and edit files online. All of my testing of the Microsoft web apps has been marred by slow performance. Saving files from my installed copy of Word 2010 to the online storage has been glacial. Opening files online in a browser isn’t bad but doesn’t seem to have the snap that Google Docs has.

The Microsoft services are not final (it’s not even possible to edit a Word document online with Microsoft’s web apps yet), so perhaps there will be last minute tuning that will turn them into speed demons. At the moment, Google Docs stands out, like so many of the Google services, because it is streamlined and quick.

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