Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 17 October 2008

What is wrong with Google’s superior software for scientists?

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Posted in Efficient email, Tips, useful software, Web 2.0

Scientists’s desk
What general office software is useful for scientists? I come to the following enumeration: an email client, a calendar manager, a browser, a document formatter (for non-scientific papers), a spreadsheet and presentation software. Microsoft sells software providing all these functionalities, and indeed many scientists use the Microsoft products Outlook, Internet Explorer, MS-Word, MS-Excel and MS-PowerPoint. However, with free – technically speaking – superior products Google is now challenging the leading position of Microsoft in this traditionally Microsoft territory

Tired of Microsoft
After having followed each and every update of the MS-DOS and Windows operating systems for the last thirty (30) years Iexhausted.jpg have had it with Microsoft. I am not going to defend the Redmond boys any longer when my colleagues shame them. On the contrary: I will give my peers additional arguments.

Microsoft newest version of the Windows operating system, Vista, is a real disaster. slow.gifBuyers of new laptops invariably downgrade their Vista to Windows XP, as this embarrassing solution seems to be the only way to get their laptops out of lethargy. The new office suite MS Office 2007 is just another Microsoft failure. All customization of earlier MS Office versions, introduced by the user to make his life easy, cannot be used any longer. New bugs popping up, along side the ever surviving old bugs (for instance spell-checking with soft-hyphens in MS-Word). MS Word is known to ruin any html file. MS Internet Explorer has become snail-paced. I have always hated MS Excel as a counter-intuitive spreadsheet.

In the MS Office 2007 suite new, incompatible, file formats (“fordollar_sign1.jpg your own security” they say, but they mean for their own dollars). Old files can still be edited in “Compatibility Mode” but you will be continuously warned that you should upgrade. Science is an international endeavor in which scientists collaborate, share and compete. Researchers are based all over the world, including in newly industrialized countries and in developing countries. It will take many years before they are all able to edit the new file formats, like “.pptx” and “.docx”. So I think scientists should look for alternatives. Rather than discussing desktop alternatives like I will have a look at the on-line products of Google.

Google Calendar
In any scientific group communication is important and communication problems readily arise. “Is our group leader in today?”, or “When does postdoc Y return from the conference?”, or “When can I use the large apparatus (laser, SEM, ..)”. In our group all these questions are answered by using Google Calendars. An absolutely superior product. We have a number of Google calendars, like the calendar of the group leader, the calendar for the presence of group members, and the calendar for use of large equipment. Any group member can, from anywhere in the world, from any computer and from any operating system, check and edit these calendars. It works as a charm. Superb professional quality. We are finally liberated from the calendar function in the Microsoft Outlook-Exchange Server combination that was continuously using all the bandwidth of our computers by continuously synchronizing totally irrelevant data.

Google Docs
Google has recently introduced Google Docs. Multiple users can googledoc.jpgsimultaneously edit (and save and export) documents, spreadsheets and presentations on-line. Again, in quality a class by itself. As I discussed in a previous post this functionality is not good enough for writing elaborate scientific papers (containing math etc.). But many useful applications remain for scientists. We use Google docs very regularly in our group.

I am not using Gmail, but I am still using Outlook for my email. The reason is the disappointing flat file structure Gmail offers (Yahoo! mail is much better in this respect). I need a large number of hierarchical folders, to classify my emails. This hierarchical system is basically my to-do list. Google uses the flat file structure to prove how good its search engine is. Apparently Google is not interested in taking over the Outlook market position.

Microsoft is often blamed to be an arrogant company not willing to listen to customers. The fact that Google takes on Microsoft gives a number of people pleasant feelings. But Google is in itself also a very arrogant, aggressive company. As I noted myself. They are not at all interested in discussing possible improvements of their products. They do not answer letters, faxes etc. It is all the way the “not-invented here syndrome”.
Not all their products are of high quality. A number of their desktop applications are just fringes.

What is wrong with Google?
I wanted to start a collaboration with a scientist who is based in France. But it turns out that French scientists are not allowed to use any of the Google products, like Google Calendar and Google Docs. The reason is very simple: Google’s privacy policy, or rather the absence thereof.
No user knows what Google does with all the information cia-seal-plaque.jpgnsa_seal.jpgcollected in their databases. It is clear that all American secret agencies (and Chinese?) will have access to it. But is this information used for commercial purposes, like direct marketing? Is this information for sale? Will Google sell my concept of a Nature paper to our competitors? It is clear that, unless Google makes its privacy position clear, a large-scale (international) use of their – admittedly very fine products – will not take place.

My position
My position is that Google Calendar and Google Docs are so important for our group that I am willing to take the risk. But maybe sooner or later the European Union might interfere and request a privacy policy from Google. Until that time we are happy users.

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  1. Unregistered

    22 Oct 2008 15:39, suzan

    I use Gmail (read and send from my university account), Google Calender, Google Reader, Google Groups and Google Docs. I like it all very much.

    Of course I still use LaTeX for my papers and presentations. MS Excel has not been surpassed by google spreadsheet.

  2. Unregistered

    24 Oct 2008 5:14, Google Docs Guide | Dr Shock MD PhD

    […] scientists use google as well, notably google docs and even gmail as can be read on Survival Blog for Scientists. After having followed each and every update of the MS-DOS and Windows operating systems for the […]

  3. Unregistered

    10 Dec 2008 22:20, Amit

    We developed a free, online To Do List and Project Management application that works with Google Docs.

    Manymoon is free and you can sign-up here:

    We are listed on the Google Solutions Marketplace and have received great feedback from our customers.

    Feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions. Thanks!

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