Google falls behind the curve in collaboration

Google falls behind the curve in collaboration
Credit: Thinkstock

Google Drive and Docs live on their own quirky island, limiting interoperability and usefulness in helping groups get work done


Google's Web-based collaboration suite feels increasingly at odds with modern Web collaboration.

Exhibit A: Page breaks in Google Docs. You can't get rid of them. Yes, you can trawl through forums and find an obscure workaround based on a browser extension. But there's no built-in off switch. Like a PDF file, a Google Doc yearns to be printed on 8.5-by-11 paper, although that is unlikely ever to happen.

Exhibit B: Images in Google Drive. One of the Slack integrations I've built reports stats for our service by pushing charts to Google Drive and posting messages with links to those charts into a Slack channel. Following those links often isn't frictionless, though; there always seems to be another permissions hoop to jump through.

Why not embed the images directly in the Slack messages? It should be doable. Slack's webhooks -- the mechanism I use to post updates to Slack -- support attachments that can embed images. But just as pushing those charts into Google Drive turns out to be harder than it ought to be, so is pulling them from Google Drive into Slack.

I tried what should work. In Google Drive I captured the image URL of one of the charts my script created and uploaded (as a PNG file) to Drive. I included that URL in a message attachment that another script posted to a Slack channel. But no image appeared in the channel. After rechecking my use of Slack's API I took a close look at the resource identified by the image URL. It wasn't the PNG image I'd uploaded. It had been transmuted into a WebP file:

WebP is a new image format that provides lossless and lossy compression for images on the web. WebP lossless images are 26% smaller in size compared to PNGs.

Smaller, maybe, but I was surprised by the format switcheroo and Slack wanted nothing to do with it. Google's collaboration suite is powerful, but it certainly isn't a first-class citizen of the Web.

Elsewhere, Web collaboration is evolving. I've written about Federated Wiki, which reboots the classic wiki not only by decentralizing it but also by turning it into a universal harness for plug-ins that render text, images, data, code, and more. There's also Jupyter Notebook (formerly IPython Notebook), widely used in science. It handles a similar range of data types made collaborative by an integration with GitHub.

At the core of both systems are simple JSON data structures that can be version-controlled, shared, connected to other systems, and straightforwardly rendered to clean and understandable HTML/CSS/JS -- or, as is still required in many scientific venues, to PDF. But the primary metaphor for collaboration isn't rectangular sheets of paper circulating around an office; it's data that flows through the Web and is accessible to common Web tools.

What works for scientists today will, I hope, work for the rest of us in the near future. I'd love to see Google's suite evolve in that direction. I'd also love to see the emergence of competitors who have never been constrained by an outmoded notion of office work.

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