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.