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Google Docs plugs into email, turns 'comments' into 'discussions'

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Google has equipped its Google Docs online word processor with a new discussion system designed to enhance collaboration between users. The setup augments the traditional "comments" system popularized by Microsoft Word, letting users not only attach comments to a document, but also readily discuss the document with collaborators via email.

With existing word processors, you can easily embed comments in a document, and when you share the document – typically over email – colleagues can reply with comments of their own. But this isn't the smoothest way to collaborate. "You end up spending so much time on the mechanics of it, you're almost don't deal with the true feedback," Google group product manager Scott Johnston tells The Register.

"[Today's] comments aren't really conducive to discussion. You can add a quick response, but if you really want to discuss something you can't do it in a tiny little box. So then discussions move into email. But then it's really hard to follow. It loses its structure and you add people halfway through and you lose track of what you're discussing.

"We're trying to bring new perspective to this."

The new system integrates Google Docs with email. When you attach a comment to a document, it's automatically sent to the document's author via email. And if you like, you can rope in other collaborators as well. When collaborators reply, their missives are automatically embedded in the document as part of a running discussion. In much the same way, users can reply to replies. In the end, this is more of a discussion system than a comment system.

"You need to be able to easily get people into a discussion about a document. Email is a good way to do back and forth, but it needed to be more structured," Johnston tells us. "We needed to figure out a way to integrate with email in an intuitive way." The system works with any email client – not just Gmail.

At the end of a Docs discussion, you can "resolve" it – i.e., remove it from the visible document. But the discussion is saved, and you can view it again if you like. The system isn't completely compatible with third-party applications, but it is in part. When you export the document to another application, only unresolved discussions are exported with it. These show up as ordinary comments, but you lose the archived discussions.

The new system, it seems, is trying to do what the infamous Google Wave tried to do. Google unveiled Wave to much fanfare in May of 2009, saying it would replace email and chat and allow for seamless document collaboration across the web, but the company soon gave up on the project and left it to die as an external open source project.

Johnston – who came to Google when the web giant acquired wikiware startup JotSpot in 2006 – says that Wave was not necessarily an influence on the Docs discussion system. "There's no Wave history here," he says. "We learned a lot from that project, but this is distinct from Wave." Asked if this same system would be applied to other parts of the Google Apps suite, Stone indicated it would. "We don't have anything to announce yet, but it was built for that."

According to Johnston, the system has been extensively "dogfooded" – i.e., used within Google – and tested with outside users as well. As of Wednesday morning, it is now available in all new Google Docs documents for all languages supported by Google Apps – if you're on the suite's rapid release track, which makes new features immediately available. ®

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