Google Apps optimize

The Google Docs text editor that doesn't edit text files

Kevin Purdy ponders the peculiar fact that you cannot view or edit a plain text file in Google Docs without first converting it.

It was a strangely sunny mid-winter afternoon in Buffalo, and the web developer was editing HTML in Notepad on a Windows laptop at the counter. He seemed, in many respects, out of place in the Euro-style cafe. So, being the kind of type who bothers people, I asked him why.

“I make myself comfortable in this, because it’s the only thing every client will have,” he said (from memory). “Windows 7, or Windows XP SP1, they have Notepad. If they have Macs, they have TextEdit. It’s been very valuable to be able to work in plain text.”

I can’t help but agree. I write for three publications every week, each with their own set of editors’ preferences and content management systems. So I write my posts in plain text, in Markdown style, which one can quickly convert to very clean HTML, if needed. When things get wonky with web platforms or versions or lost emails, there’s always the plain text file that has just the words.

Which brings me to Google Docs, and a good question my editor, Mark Kaelin, here at TechRepublic asked me about plain text: why is it a second-class citizen? He didn’t put it that way, but that’s what it seems like. You can download a “Document,” or word processing file from Google Docs, as a text file, with the standard .txt extension, either from within the file or in bulk. And you can upload .txt text files to Google Docs. But you can’t even view the contents of .txt files from Google Docs - you have to convert them to Docs’ own house format to view, or edit, those files.

That doesn’t seem like a problem, unless you’ve tried to copy the text out of any Docs document into any other program. Many online content systems choke on the invisible parameters that Docs places on your text, so hence my editors’ dilemma. In my own case, I’ve tried to defend Docs to book designers, screencast hosts, Office 2010 users, and magazine editors, and now I’m done defending Docs. I just write in plain text, whenever I can.

An alternative

But I do like having my work saved automatically, and off my computer, so I save plain text files in the online syncing service Dropbox. I can edit those files on any desktop editor I choose, or I can use the very handy SourceKit chrome app, which directly edits text files in your Dropbox space. Dropbox’s mobile apps even have a “DB text editor” built in, so if I need to make a quick correction, I can do so from my Android, or my wife’s iPhone or iPad.

Honestly, a big part of the problem would be fixed if Docs offered a preview of .txt files. Apparently Docs used to do this, but it was taken out, and it should be coming back. But let’s dream big and imagine a time when you can convert a Docs file to plain text, then edit it in that plain text view. It would show Docs’ commitment to working from anywhere, on any machine, and add in compatibility with just about any other editing software out there.

About

Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.

5 comments
UncaYimmy
UncaYimmy

If the software doesn't permit pasting as plain text (MS Word allows it), then paste the text into Notepad. Not ideal, but it works.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

This is one of the most frustrating things about using Google Enterprise Apps as your primary productivity set of tools - Google keeps changing things. At one time you could edit .txt files from Google Docs, but now you can't - at least until they put the feature back in. I find this back and forth annoying and counter-productive, which is why I still use Microsoft Office and Notepad ++. Am I the only one that finds these Google Doc inconsistencies a deal breaker when it comes to the tools we use for getting work done?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

What you suggest is exactly what I have been doing, but the problem is that the text files I use are located on the company network, which means I have to VPN to get to them. The plan was to put these text files into the cloud (Google Docs) where I can get to them from anywhere. But Google Docs will not open a text file, it won't even let you view a text file. You have to convert it to a Google doc file to read it and when you copy and paste, the pasted text includes formatting information.

thoiness
thoiness

That's what I do when I copy anything from and to the web. Copy from the web, into notepad, then out of notepad and back to the web.

_JohnH
_JohnH

Nope, you're not the only one. After several years of counting on Docs to manage (basic formatting and summing ranges) simple spreadsheets for me and being increasingly frustrated with laggy and inconsistent response on a decent desktop PC with very fast internet connection (copying a row might appear to work, but paste would paste either nothing or something left over from an earlier session, until several minutes later everything would actually work again), I converted back to Excel. Because Excel actually works. I'm embarrassed that I every tried to evangelize Docs to my friends, because I won't use it myself any more.