Almost everyone uses a spreadsheet and document editor at some point, but Microsoft's Office is often overkill for those who just want fast and simple access to some basic tools.

Now Google has edged into the gap with an online document processor and spreadsheet tool called - with no apparent imagination or flair - Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

In theory, online working should be an easy sell. Imagine being able to access your work - and indeed to continue your work - from anywhere that has online access. Imagine giving selective access to your documents, and also allowing others to make comments or direct changes. Imagine being able to publish any document to a unique URL with a few mouse clicks.

So far so good. But in practice Google Docs is very much a minimal solution. Paragraph styles, symbols, tables, fonts and colours are included. But more complex tools such as Track Changes, page footnotes, and other more advanced page layouts aren't there.

There's also no word count tool, which makes Docs almost useless for professional writing. It's a similar story with the Spreadsheet tool, which lacks more advanced maths functions, charting and graphing, and other features that many Excel users find essential.

File sizes

There are also size restrictions. Each document is limited to 500KB, with up to 2MB per embedded image. Users are allowed 1,000 documents and 1,000 images. Spreadsheets are limited to 50,000 cells in up to 10,000 rows and 256 columns, spread across 20 sheets.

That's clearly more than enough for most projects, although import of existing files is limited to 1MB, which is big, but not quite big enough to deal with larger sheets.

These limits may not matter in theory, but in practice both Google applications can feel slow, even over a broadband connection. Eventually, online speeds will start to match the speed of a local hard disk, but until then there's going to be a significant delay whenever you try to open a document, even if it's simple and small.

Larger documents, especially those needing plenty of bandwidth for images, are simply too unwieldy to work with online unless you have access to ultra fast broadband speeds of 10MB or better.

Privacy is another issue that may bother some prospective users. The fact that a Google sign-on is required matters less now that almost everyone can get an invite. But, more pertinently for the security conscious, if you know where your data is, you know how safe it is.

Google employees won't be spending their time reading your words, but you need to be aware you're working on trust alone. There's no true way to know what's going on at Google headquarters, or how widely distributed access is. Common sense suggests that this isn't the right product to use if your content is in any way commercially sensitive, or even just personally embarrassing.

Microsoft doesn't need to worry yet, but it's hard to argue with free. Google's offering lacks bells and whistles, both in terms of collaborative features and in terms of more basic functionality.

However, lean sometimes implies clean, and Microsoft's collaborative tools in the 2007 Office system seem overcomplicated and bureaucratic in comparison. To a lesser extent this is still true of the Live IM and other messaging tools.

So the most useful way to look at these tools is to see them as products aimed at very different markets, rather than direct competitors. If you're looking for a tool for quick collaboration between a handful of people and don't need an enterprisewide feature set, Google Docs has a lot to offer.

Simple solution

And even at the enterprise level, there's something to be said for a solution that works simply and efficiently, without trying to duplicate a managerial hierarchy in network space.

Finally, there's also the useful option of using Google Docs as a simple back-up and sharing tool. You don't even need to bother with editing - just use it as a convenient extra disk.

The simple summary is that Google Docs is an amateur tool designed for occasional light sparetime use. It's not a substitute for Word and Excel, but it's definitely of interest to people who don't need all of their features, who aren't planning to produce and publish work to a fully professional standard, or who want a quick and simple way to save work to make it accessible and editable away from home and the office.

If that's all you're after, you can get it from Google for free.