Define Google Drive based on your needs

Google Drive is flexible and powerful, but the term's many meanings may lead to confusion.

Identify how your organization and your users work with Google Drive, then configure apps and settings to support their needs.

Here's a one question vocabulary quiz for you:

The term "Google Drive" means __________.

  1. Storage, as in "the Google Drive file storage system".
  2. Browser apps, as in "create a new document by logging in to Google Drive at".
  3. A file syncing app, as in "open Google Drive on Windows/Mac to access your files".
  4. A mobile app, as in "create and edit documents with the Google Drive app on your phone".
  5. All of the above

Of course, "5" is correct. Google Drive might refer to any of these four items.

Ending the confusion

The multiple definitions of "Google Drive" may cause confusion. If you instruct a person to "Open the file with Google Drive", should they open a browser or an app? Both actions open "Google Drive", but leave the user in different environments. The distinctions matter little to a user attempting to work. The difference does matter, though. Opening a native Word file with Google Drive in the browser displays the file, and lets the user create an entirely new, converted file in the Google Docs format. There are now two files, instead of one. One in Google Docs format and one in Word format; this may cause more confusion and frustration.

Typically, people use Google Drive in one of two ways:

  1. To store Microsoft Office documents, or
  2. To create, edit and store native Google (or web) documents from a browser.

Organizations that have moved beyond Microsoft Office have it easy. Google Drive stores the organization's files, and provides access to the apps needed to create and edit documents. Without Microsoft Office installed, there's little chance for confusion.

The challenge arises in organizations that use Google Apps for email and shared calendaring, yet still use the Microsoft Office suite for documents. In these settings, Google Drive functions simply to store Microsoft Office documents. That's where the multiple meanings of "Google Drive" might cause confusion.

If you're unsure how people are using Google Drive, ask a user to create a new document. If they open Microsoft Word, they're probably using Google Drive as storage. If they use a browser, they're using the full power of Google Drive apps. (I'm aware that some organizations use both: Office for formatted documents, and Drive for collaboration. Users who do so are quite technically proficient.)

Here's how to minimize potential confusion and problems in each of the two environments.


Microsoft Office document users should access Drive from the Drive desktop app or Quickoffice mobile app

1. Store Microsoft Office documents

If your organization uses Google Apps for Business for email and calendaring and the Microsoft Office suite for documents, here's how I suggest you setup your system to work with documents.

a. Install Google Drive on Mac/Windows systems for file syncing

Install the Google Drive app (available for Mac and Windows). Teach users to access Drive when opening or saving Office documents: on Mac systems, by using the Mac Finder; on Windows systems, by using the "Start Menu" (or tile, if using Windows 8).

b. Use QuickOffice for Google Apps Business on smartphones and tablets

QuickOffice mobile apps (available for Android and iOS) enable users to edit Office documents, without converting the document into native Google Document format. This helps users avoid the "multiple document" problem detailed above. Files created on the device will be in Microsoft Office or plain ".txt" formats, all of which may be opened with Microsoft Office on Mac or Windows systems.


Users without Microsoft Office should access Drive from the web or Google Drive mobile app

2. Work with native Google documents

Things are simpler if your organization has removed Microsoft Office entirely, and rely fully on Google Apps for Business for email, calendaring, and document collaboration.

a. Use a browser for all file activities on Mac/Windows systems

Create, edit, and share files in a browser at (I recommend you use the Chrome browser.) Google provides a helpful interactive tour of Google Drive and Docs features at

(Note for advanced users: remember that the "More" menu provides users with access to any administrator-installed apps from the Google Marketplace. For example, this is how I access the MindMeister mind-mapping web application.)

b. Use Google Drive apps on smartphones and tablets

Google Drive mobile apps (available for Android and iOS) enable users to edit Google documents on smartphones and tablets. Files created on the device will be in "native" Google document formats, and may be shared with others for viewing or editing.

A note for power users: Of course, nothing prevents users from working with files everywhere (i.e., in the Google Drive Windows/Mac app, in QuickOffice, in Google Drive mobile apps, and in the browser app). Technically proficient users should have no problem working with each of these tools, switching among them as needed.

Bottom line

In an ideal world, file formats wouldn't matter: Google Drive users would be able to open and edit Microsoft Office and native Google doc files without creating "converted" copies. There are signs that Google is working toward that world. (In June 2013, François Beaufort posted that the developer channel of Chrome OS allows native editing of Microsoft Office files.) Until then, choose the right Google Drive tools for your users, so they'll know what you mean when you say, "Save it to Google Drive."

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