Google Docs and Sheets are must-have tools for many people—but their app-implementations leave much to be desired.
This past weekend, I attended the MIT Mystery Hunt, as I have for the last three years. It's a delightfully dastardly puzzle hunt, packing over 100 logic puzzles, math mysteries, cryptic crosswords, Braille and Morse Code-themed madness, and multi-team-member runarounds into just under three days. There's nothing quite like feeling terribly stupid and horribly clever within a matter of hours, and it's a great mental reset for the year to come.
Unfortunately, as you might be able to spot in the above picture, this weekend also saw the return of my 11-inch MacBook Air. After relying almost exclusively on my iPad Pro for two months, I ended up dual-wielding both the Air and the Pro throughout the weekend—all because of Google Drive.
A compatibility mess
Google's productivity apps are a must-use during the Hunt. We use Google's Sheets to collaborate and record puzzle data amongst our teammates, often opening up multiple tabs to try new theories or indexing formulae. But Sheets barely has a functional iPad app, and it's missing necessary puzzle hunt features like being able to quickly copy a function to the rest of the row, or move rows or columns. On the iPad Pro, it's even worse.
Despite receiving several updates in the last few months, Google's apps haven't been updated for Apple's larger tablet. And there's no hope, as there is with Facebook, of using Google's in-theory-HTML5-and-therefore-iPad-compliant website: Google's standard web view on an iPad flat-out punts you to the apps—if the website even correctly detects you have the app installed. I can't count the number of times I've seen the websites try and send me to the App Store to open a spreadsheet, when I clearly have Sheets already available.
Trying to request the desktop version of the website won't work, either: You won't be able to scroll, or tap on anything that requires a double-click, and any link you do manage to make work will send you right back to the mobile environment.
This would be annoying but manageable if Google's apps provided feature parity with the website. Unfortunately, while they have some good points (like multiple account management), they're largely a huge pain point on mobile.
First off, they're split into three different programs: Drive, Docs, and Sheets. Each displays its own unique "Recent" list; Drive supposedly has the canonical list, but tapping anything in that app boots you out to Docs or Sheets. Worse, Sheets can't find anything you may have in Google Drive but haven't yet opened (like a shared folder) until you find and open it in the Drive app.
When I surveyed Twitter, I found dozens of similar complaints and frustrations. Anger with the overly small touch targets. Bouncing between apps. Requiring a live internet connection.
Now, software development is hard, and Google has chosen the roughest of all worlds: developing for multiple platforms and the web. But its apps go from occasionally incovenient to downright impossible on the iPad Pro.
A pro disappointment
Like iPhone-only apps, apps with no iPad Pro support just upscale their current iPad app to the Pro's screen resolution. This means you're essentially using the 9.7-inch iPad's keyboard upscaled to the 12.9-inch Pro's screen. Worse, they're not configured to properly recognize the Smart Connector—so when you attempt to use any keyboard with that attachment, over half the screen is replaced with a big, grey box that would otherwise be a virtual keyboard. (I won't even get into how poorly Sheets parses Smart Connector accessories, which leads to a frustrating, characters-dropped experience for anyone using a physical iPad Pro keyboard.)
On Sheets, which requires you enter in cell information along the bottom bar, this is nigh-insanity. You're reduced to seeing just five rows of information, and trying to move to a different row is an exercise in tapping futility. Nor do Google's apps support iOS 9's new Split Screen view for iPad; you can either use a brief slide-over to check your data, or remain stuck in the single-app past.
While frustrating, I understand Google not having resources to implement Split View just yet. But it's been two months since the iPad Pro's release, and four since its announcement. To not even update the screen resolution on a Pro-level device—where conceivably users might want to edit spreadsheets with some convenience—it just leaves me shaking my head.
If Google had shown no interest in developing for Apple's platforms due to the Android and Chrome rivalry, that would be one thing. But the company has dozens of apps in the App Store right now, many of them well-made. It clearly cares about its online document-editing platform. But not enough, it seems, to take care of iPad Pro users.
It's possible that Google has talent drain where iOS is concerned, and didn't have the resources to devote to a proper update for iPad Pro users in a timely fashion. That's fair: It's a big company focused on a lot of different projects. But why not have the web team focus on an all-around more touch-friendly site for mobile devices, then? That would benefit every ecosystem without the need for massive custom code for each tablet's app.
The fact of the matter is, without a proper implementation of Google Drive for the iPad Pro, users who work in a Google environment are hamstrung when it comes to using a tablet. If I had attempted to use the Pro and the Pro alone this weekend at the Mystery Hunt, I wouldn't have been able to collaborate and solve puzzles at the rate I normally do.
That's a shame, because the Pro is so well-suited to the Hunt's other demands: drawing and tracing, scavenger hunts that require puzzle solves on-the-go (clunky with a laptop), lengthy battery, and a portable internet connection.
Living without the laptop
Outside the insanity of Mystery Hunt, the Pro has become my de-facto laptop computer for almost every task. I'm lucky in that I don't have to use Google Sheets in my day to day job all that often. But when I do have to collaborate in Sheets or Docs, I often end up inputting data in Excel or 1Writer and copying it back when I'm finished. Others aren't nearly so lucky: For many, Google's apps are a nigh-requirement for their jobs.
Without supporting the iPad Pro, Google is—intentionally or otherwise—choking off an avenue for people who want a tablet in lieu of a laptop. The company's half-hearted apps prevent tablet and phone users from collaborating effectively on the go. And, in all honesty, they make me question whether iMore and our Mystery Hunt team might be better off using Excel with Microsoft's collaboration service.
I've used Google Docs for almost seven years. Giving it up seems crazy. But if Google's not willing to be a good citizen on mobile platforms, I'm not really sure I want to keep giving the company my business.