Google Docs is a great way to collaborate on documents and for a lot of people can probably replace large, expensive office suites with a free, online solution. When I first started using the service, the features were pretty basic. I noticed today that there was a link to a list of new features. A couple of these were particularly interesting. Since some of these features have been around for a while without me noticing, I thought it might be worth a blog post.
The word processing program has a visual equation editor that works much like Microsoft Equation Editor. This is not a bad option for someone who only occasionally needs to include equations in their writing. However, professionals who write extensively on mathematical topics will be better served by investing the effort in learning to use LaTeX for typing equations.
The new equation editor in Google Docs will recognize LaTeX symbols and will automatically convert them to the appropriate symbol. So, for instance, you can type
\alpha and get [tex]\alpha[/tex].
This has the potential to be quite beneficial for groups that need to collaborate on mathematical documents since it leverages the LaTeX shortcuts for users who are already familiar as well as providing a graphical tool for users who prefer that option.
If you’re interested in using these shortcuts, a listing of common LaTeX symbols for mathematics is available here.
The other big feature is that elements in a drawing can be connected in such a way that the connection will stretch when the elements are moved. Google provides a detailed explanation here along with this sample image.
This type of drawing is useful in mathematics (particularly graph theory), computer science and engineering. I have used the open source GraphViz in the past for drawing connected graphs. While this new feature won’t replace a program like GraphViz, it is a feature that will certainly be useful for scientific writers.
Although I wasn’t a big fan of web apps at first, Google Docs won me over by providing a minimal set of tools and amazingly simple collaboration. I’m very glad to see that they are adding features that will appeal to technical writers.
Tony McDaniel is a graduate student in computational engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His research interests include computational mathematics, algorithm design and analysis, and data visualization for numerical solutions of partial differential equations. Other interests include photography, model rocketry and electronics.
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