On the face of it, the recent changes to the interface to Google Docs and Spreadsheets look trivial and superficial.

Google’s official announcement is brief and understated but Google Blogoscoped hits the nail on the head (twice):

‘The file listing now resembles a more traditional view in the style of, say, Windows Explorer.’

…that ordinary mortals understand and are comfortable with.

‘Google D&S looks more and more like an office application.’

In fact, Google Docs looks and performs much better than the most popular office application. I recently upgraded three home PC’s to Office 2007. I think Microsoft Office is a superb suite of professional applications (Word, Excel, OneNote) and represents great value for money as £85 buys licenses for use on three separate PC’s.

Inevitably though, my wife hated the new Word interface (shock of the new) because ’everything had changed’ and she could not easily locate the old ‘Print’ button or even ‘File-Print’.

My wife doesn’t use Google Docs and now she has mastered Word 2007, she probably never will.

However, if she ever does, it will be easy to teach her how to migrate. If she wants to print a document, she clicks the ‘Print’ button or the pretty picture of a printer. This is completely intuitive and obvious. She won’t have to call the Helpdesk and interrupt the Champions League Final just to print two copies of her CV.

If my wife wants to delete a document, she either selects the document and clicks ‘Delete’. Alternatively, if she has successfully completed my 3 days ‘Advanced Course’ (a bargain at £150) and is officially certified, she simply drags the document to the dustbin. Two choices. Both quick, easy and obvious.

Another occasional task my wife needs help with is finding her CV. She keeps all 178 documents in ‘My Documents’. She doesn’t archive files by year. She doesn’t remember that she last updated the CV in May 2003 nor does she know whether the document is named ‘CV’, ‘Curriculum Vitae’ or ‘CV-Full’ or ‘CV-May-2003’ .

She can’t fathom out the search interface from within Word (nor can I) and does not know that you can search for Word documents from a completely different application - Windows Explorer. She simply wants to find her CV. From within Word. Quickly.

In Google Docs, she types ‘CV’ in the ‘Search’ box and is offered all the available possibilities with intelligent auto-complete.

This isn’t patronising. This is all about usability, interface design and mass market appeal.

If Auntie Beryl writes yet another letter to her bank, she simply drags it to the ‘Letters’ folder. She doesn’t need to know that this isn’t really a folder and the document is now tagged as ‘Letter’.

Uncle Harry doesn’t need to know the definition and intricacies of folksonomies. He doesn’t care that, strictly speaking, this document could also be multiply tagged ‘Bank’ and ‘Personal’. He just wants to type the letter, run a spell checker, quickly print the thing and make the 5 o’clock collection.

I honestly believe, in the future, this seemingly trivial change will be viewed as the turning point when Google changed from a marginal, Web 2.0 application and started to offer a credible alternative to Microsoft Office (for personal but not corporate users - yet). This was the day that non Web 2.0 users can now be introduced to Docs and actually understand and use it.

Ironically, the revamped Google Docs interface is very reminiscent of the Web based interface of Office 2007 which is another excellent software product and unbelievably close to the desktop equivalent.