Why can’t other apps get real-time co-authoring right like Google Docs?

Google Docs has been the supreme co-authoring experience for years, why can’t anyone else offer anything as good? Just a frustrating thing, really.

Jack and I often collaborate for articles, whether we’re just editing each other’s articles or writing one together, and we often use Google Docs. While Jack loves to wax poetic about his affection for Google Docs, I happen to prefer Word, and most of our freelancers send us Word documents as well.

Our company uses Box for asset sharing, which doesn’t automatically let you know when someone else has a document open. This can lead to forked versions if you don’t take the time to ask if anyone else is in a particular document. It may just be a minor frustration for two people, but what about larger groups that all need to work on the same document? What if they aren’t allowed by office policy or other reason to use Google Docs?

Google Docs remains far superior when it comes to avoiding collaborative conflicts and co-authoring articles in real time—nothing else offers quite the same experience. Google Docs was built to provide a web-based app from the start, which allows it to provide an easier real-time co-authoring experience compared to native apps. (Google Docs came to be after the company acquired Upstartle in 2006, which had created the web app Writely.)

Returning to Box Drive, it does allow you to lock out others when in a document or spreadsheet, but it’s not on by default so you have to know about the feature. Another popular file-hosting service, Dropbox, essentially rigged up their own notification solution using the little dot that sticks to the side of Office apps and tells you if someone has a document open; immensely helpful!

But, the issue still remains that only one person can be in a document at a time. So, I’m forced to use Google Docs if we’re sharing a byline (my life is so hard). This made us curious what the co-authoring experience is like with other applications. Google Docs has been around for over a decade, surely others have caught up by now?

Office 365 co-authoring

[Update, 5pm PST: Well, it turns out I was incorrect, but there's no arguing that real-time co-authoring is not central to the Office experience.]

Given that Word is my preferred app for writing, I looked there first. There is where I ran into a frustrating time getting a consistent answer. Word does provide real-time co-authoring. However, it's not easy getting a straight answer, which is where I ran into trouble determining what versions of Word can do what. One support page mentions requiring an Office 365 subscription, while another does not. You always need to have the document saved within file-sync software (Microsoft pushes OneDrive and SharePoint, but Box and Dropbox work, too). 

Initially, it looked like you could only real-time co-author if using Word Online, but Microsoft has so many support pages that don’t all sound like they were written by everyone on the same page that I wasn’t so sure. Unfortunately, it was pointed out to me that Office 2016 offers real-time co-authoring in the the Word app. It looked to us like you could only editing in the browser (aka Word Online), but apparently there's more options.

On Mac, users can “simultaneously” edit documents in the native app, Word 2016 for Mac (again with Office 365 sub). It specifically mentions real-time co-authoring on the page (and this YouTube video shows it being done), but the support page also mentions that the document will prevent saving if there are conflicts between your changes and someone else’s. That’s not real time, just concurrent at best. iOS apps also gained the ability to do real-time co-authoring in 2018.

It’s clear why this is so hard—Google Docs was built from the beginning as a web-based platform, while Word is 15 years older and wasn’t designed to be in the cloud from the get-go. I don’t envy product managers that are going to have to eventually figure out how to retrofit real-time co-authoring into Windows clients.

Other examples

However, just because an app is a web app doesn’t mean it quite has everything figured out.

For example, Smartsheet is another app that allows for some co-authoring capabilities. Adoption within our office also sparked this article because people wondered if more than one person could be in each spreadsheet-style workspace at the same time.

Unfortunately, it too is somewhat limited and doesn’t offer co-authoring in real time. Multiple people can be in the same page simultaneously, but you won’t see any changes reflected in it until you save your changes. If someone makes a change in the same cell as you, whoever saved first wins that mini contest of productivity. It’s definitely not real-time, but better than nothing. 

It’s disappointing that there’s no real-time co-authoring in a web app in 2019.

Will anything come close to the Google Docs experience?

Google Docs has been around so long, I was co-authoring school assignments almost a decade ago, but no other app yet compares. Office 365 comes close, but you have to have a subscription, while Google Docs is a free app. Best of all, it just works. No hoops to jump through, just open it up, share it with co-workers, and you’re all ready to go. On Chrome, you can even use Google Docs when offline.

Unlike Office, Google Docs was born online, and Office has been playing catch up ever since. It wasn’t until 2011, five years after Docs debuted, that Office 365 came out and users had the ability to do real-time co-authoring. This stuff is hard and it couldn’t have been easy to retrofit Word into the cloud; Google had the foresight to deliver a web-based app at a time the EUC industry saw the cloud nearing fruition. Additionally, I wonder how many of Office’s customers were clamoring for real-time co-authoring in the first place. Not everyone needs it, and it seems to be a matter of preference.

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This is such an interesting generational thing. Students these days grow up co-authoring in Google Docs, so the idea of attaching a Word doc to an email is foreign to them. It's like I wrote a couple of years ago—we're never going to get rid of email, but hopefully we can get rid of attachments. Also, a central cloud repository makes it easier to control (and revoke) access. So you can see where I stand on this issue—and why I love to wax poetic about Google Docs :)

On the other hand, we can all name a few features that Office has that Google Docs doesn't, so it certainly goes both ways. In that case, it's a matter of getting used to sending links to the doc in your EFSS and making sure that everyone has access (an identity management workflow to get used to).

Either way, there's still no reason to be attaching documents to emails in 2019. (Even though that's our workflow for freelance articles... Hmmm, I think it's time we change that :)
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