In Search Of the Elusive Online/Offline Cloud+Mobile Writer - Google Docs vs. Apple Notes

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 08/01/2012

If there’s one thing that illuminates the difference between Google and Apple product culture to me, it’s Google Docs versus Apple’s built-in Notes app. They are both iterating towards being better writing programs. But Docs was born online in the browser, and Notes offline as a “house” app. And they’re in a race now to become that sought after but elusive seamless online/offline cloud writing environment. What they’ve each done to date is highly illuminating of their respective cultures.

iPhone’s Notes originally couldn’t even sync with your desktop OS X. You had to email notes! Then during some upgrade, Notes popped up as a folder under Mail—a desperately needed compromise. And most recently, in the Mountain Lion upgrade, it’s now a first-class citizen with a stand-alone app shown off on your app launcher bar after upgrade.

While you can’t format text, or organize folders, or even switch fonts, the online/offline syncing in Apple Notes is rock-solid—seemingly, no matter the platform. Wherever I sit down, or whatever device I pick up, there’s my latest notes! I never see syncing issues or win/loss scenarios play out. It just seems to work perfectly all the time. Features are limited, but the must-have feature in a MOBILE-writing environment is there. For mobile, perfect online/offline syncing is better than a cloud writer.

iOS / OS X Notes is s cloud+mobile writer, which is an entirely different beast from just a cloud writer like Google Docs. You can create new docs offline. There are no strange rules to know about what syncs. There is no online vs offline mode. There is no view-only mode. Every single doc is everywhere. The user experience is identical in every situation. Apple got there first. Not even Evernote compares on this front, as the Evernote Android app has strange modal behavior.

Of course that highlights the fact that there’s not even an Android app for Apple Notes, so it cannot be a truly pervasive cloud writer app. I cannot for example edit, or even view or reach, my all-important notes from my new Nexus 7. As simple as it seems, you also can’t get to your notes through the Web logged into iCloud. You have limited view-ability of your Numbers, Pages and Keynote files (saved in iCloud) — but not simple Notes. And this is tolerated, because everything else works so well.

So what’s Notes good for if there’s no text formatting and inaccessible through web browsers or Android? Well, for writing like this, of course. I’m on the subway right now on my way to work, and I’m tapping out this article, iPhone in one hand and coffee in the other. I would love nothing more than to be using Google Docs right now—or even another iPhone notes app that syncs with it. But you know what? When I get to my desk and sit down, this is going to be there. No further action, or even thinking required.

Okay, what about Google Docs, then? I love it! I ditched Microsoft Word as my default writing environment long ago. Being web browser and cloud-based is a killer-app in and of itself, because it solves the file transportation and version hell problems in one fell swoop. Your files are both automatically everywhere you are, and there’s only ever one master version of any file. But then you add the collaborative features—zowie! I’d hate to be the Microsoft Office guys about now.

Oh yeah… the offline thing. Well, first there was Google Gears for that, and then there wasn’t. Then there was the first attempt use the HTML5 local data store… and then there wasn’t. Then along came Google Drive—it must be a solved-problem now, right? Well no. If you knew the magic setting, you could get a selection of your recently edited files for view-only. Only recently has Google added back the ability to edit those recently edited files… but don’t try to create any new ones. And don’t try to edit any old ones that it didn’t happen choose to sync. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to keep checking whether you’re in online or offline mode, and to wait for the sync to finish whenever you switch.

Get the point? According to his bio, Steve Jobs hated Google Docs, thinking it was an inelegant unfinished product. Well, he was right. But guess what? It has some must-have killer features that Google’s rivals have yet to even come close to. Have I mentioned that it has an easy-to-use Web API, so you can do stupid Web tricks with Google Docs (I’m sorta basing my career on that)?

You can sort and tag and color-code your Google Docs. And of course you can format your text, use graphics, and even do spreadsheets, presentations and drawings. It is a true Office software suite, as opposed to Apple Notes, which is just notes. Plus, because Google Docs are unbound to any particular hardware or OS, they are much more likely to be with you throughout your entire life than Apple Notes. If Google doesn’t go away, then your files will be at your fingertips right up to your deathbed. Just add online browser and login. (expect Google Will sometime soon)

Google Docs and Apple Notes don’t even compare under normal circumstances. They are different animals for different jobs. But I’ve been waiting years for the elusive and mythical mobile+cloud writer beast. I was beginning to think we’d find alien life first. And the place a truly working online+offline mobile writer came from first—I’m writing this on the subway on my iPhone—reveals volumes about the product development cultural difference between Apple and Google.

Okay sure, people hate proprietary systems in theory, because they do not provide freedom in the ownership of your own data sense. But in some cases—Apple happens to be one—proprietary results in cool, seamless and just working. You have to put a lot of trust in Uncle Steve and the little organization he left behind. And you have to use the products they put before you in the fashion prescribed and enforced by them. And for that, you get a different kind of freedom—your time back, to use in other ways than fiddling and compensating for sucky broken systems.

Oh yeah, it’s not like Google is the open solution. Google Docs is pretty darn proprietary too. Yes, while they do give export tools if you want to gather up your marbles and go home, I don’t see an open source version of Google Docs so you can run it on your own servers. To date, it’s been treated as a proprietary in-house app (with Google being the house). Despite the pseudo-open Android and Chromium platforms. So it’s not a choice between proprietary and open, but rather proprietary and proprietary. And you have to choose to trust Larry and Sergey every bit as much as Uncle Steve. Even more so, because Google Docs is free, and ultimately paid for by advertising—no matter how indirectly.

And so, to wrap up this article, I get off the subway. I go up the elevator to my office, take out my MacBook Air, flip it open, connect the charger, and 3-finger swipe my virtual screen over to where I ALWAYS keep my Notes app open now that I’ve installed Mountain Lion. And there is my article sitting there, waiting for a few edits before I… copy and paste it over to Google Docs so I can work on it with my Commodore 64x running Ubuntu—my main work machine, do a few more edits, then…

…copy and paste it once more over into my self-hosted WordPress, which begs the question: shouldn’t this all be built into WordPress? Or at least some free and open source project that could be self-hosted if you wanted to—or perhaps hosted in the cloud, but on YOUR cloud servers. It would have to be facilitated by a mobile app that worked as seamlessly as Apple Notes, which means it would need the proper support from the OS, shuttling data back and forth at opportune times when it had an online connection, whether or not the app was running.

Oh well. I will be happy that things evolved as far as they did as of recently. I will patiently wait for the wonderful benefits of Apple Notes to merge with the wonderful benefits of Google Docs in some unforeseen way in the future, and maybe ten or twenty years after that, the same goodness coming to FOSS software so you can run it more securely in your own private cloud.