Thursday, September 8, 2011

Google's new Blogger interface

The problem

When I began to blog regularly here on Blogger, I favored Google Docs to draft & organize posts. The native Blogger editing interface was cramped, permitting one to view only a fraction of even a short piece as one edited.

Google Docs, on the other hand, was well-suited to developing pieces that were destined for publication as medium-length blog posts. The editing pane gave a work-area that filled most of a browser window, and simple formatting controls yielded straightforward HTML markup 'under the hood.' The Google Docs content could be copied to Blogger and edited in its GUI or HTML interface, and/or the HTML could be tweaked in a simple text editor (the latter, for example, vis-à-vis cross-posting elsewhere). Better still, documents that took a long and winding path to completion are protected in Google Docs by functionality that permits recovery of any previously-saved version of a post-in-development -- a "revision history" in the parlance of the cloud-based application.

Google Docs began to evolve in April 2010 toward a model meant to better support rich formatting functionality found in desktop word-processing applications, and augmented that support by making it possible for multiple parties to edit a document in real-time. As Olga Belomestnykh put it in A rebuilt, more real time Google documents, a Google Docs blog post dated 15 April 2010:
But we didn’t want to just bring you traditional word processing features. We also wanted to extend collaboration capabilities in documents. We added a sidebar that lets you see who else is editing at the same time, and, if you click the sidebar, you can chat with collaborators right next to the document. And when other editors type, you can now see their edits as they happen character-by-character.

Cool stuff.

But with the advance in collaboration capability, Google Docs lost simplicity that was much-valued by those who used the application to draft documents destined for the web. Documents drafted in Google Docs acquired a tangle of div and span baggage when opened in an HTML editor, with no added value to those drafting what were intended to be simply-formatted documents.

On the same day that the new Google Docs features were announced, editowl began a thread on the Google Docs help forum titled Why no "Edit HTML & CSS" in new Google Docs? It was one of multiple venues in which Google Docs users railed fruitlessly against the loss of Google Docs HTML-friendly functionality (this blog included, cf. It's new, but is it improved?, 5 July 2010).

I continued to use Google Docs to draft my blog posts because -- like most improvements Google rolls out -- the new interface was optional for quite some time. I chose to stick with the old interface and document format, and thus hung onto the simplicity I wanted from the app. That worked for quite a few months -- I repeatedly declined to 'upgrade' to the new editor.

Some months ago Google yanked users' option to create and edit new documents using the old style interface and format. Bummer, I thought. But I quickly realized it was still possible to force the old-style by pasting a certain URL in one's browser instead of relying on the menu in the application interface.

That dodge stopped working, maybe about a month ago. Yes, there's still a workaround: one can still make a copy of an "old format" document to create a new doc in the old style -- then just change the document's name and body, and click when offered a chance to use "the latest version of the editor."

This'll only last for a short while, I'm guessing. ("Gill," who is ranked a Google Docs Guru in the app's help forum, made the same prediction fifteen months ago in a discussion thread titled The new google docs SUCKS big time!!!!! Comparatively speaking, my complaints are pretty darn mild, eh?)


The solution

So now we get to the good news, and the real topic of this post:

On 31 August Chang Kim posted Blogger's fresh new look on Blogger Buzz. Yes indeed, a new Blogger interface rolled out just last week.

The new interface includes a new editor for bloggers who post on Google's platform. One of the excellent updates to the interface fixes a problem that made the old Blogger editor effectively useless. As Kim put it, "the post editor has been expanded and simplified to give you a larger canvas for drafting and previewing your work."

Amen to that.

I won't comment (yet) on the nifty new navigation and blogging functionality features of the new interface. I think I'm going to like most of them, but it'll take a bit of use over time to reveal whether they are improvements or impediments -- I won't declare myself before I have something solid to say.

Hands down, though, the new editor on Blogger blows away the cramped screens Google-hosted bloggers have been living with for years. The real-estate given over to one's post is generous, the GUI editor boasts a sensibly small number of HTML-friendly formatting features, and it's easy to switch between composition (GUI) and HTML mode. When one does look at the HTML it's not as awful a snarl of divs and spans as those emitted by desktop word processing programs or the new(ish) Google Docs app.

Looking at broader elements of functionality: it's easy to apply labels, scheduling a post for future publication is a snap, and -- now that the web is all about GIS -- you can even associate a post easily with a geographic location, using a handily-familiar Google Maps interface.

Well done, Google.


The caveats

However.

Two aspects of using Google Docs as a separate app for drafting are going to be hard for this blogger to give up.

The first is revision history. I really don't want to 'accidentally' delete paragraphs that I spent loads of time drafting and polishing, then have no way to recover them. But the Blogger editor lacks this feature (which is offered by Google Docs, and has been for some time).

The second is another sort of accident-protection. Like many bloggers, I often stack up a fair few proto-posts in advance: candidates for blogs that begin life as a disorganized jumble of notes and half-baked ideas -- material that is far from ready to see the light of the public intertubes. Some of these candidates never do see publication. Some of them are flat-out bad ideas; or I lose interest in them; or the moment just, well, passes. That's what cutting room floors are for. I would hate to see those posts go live just because I accidentally click the button on Blogger's editing interface. Yeah, I could un-publish, pulling the post back into draft post-haste, but those who subscribes to One Finger Typing via RSS or e-mail would be treated to an eyeful of not-ready-for-prime-time draft and there wouldn't be a thing I could do about it.

I haven't figured out what to do about the lack of revision history. A recent forum thread on this topic, I Must Be Missing Something. Surely There is a Way to Recover Text Mistakenly Edited From a Post, garnered a quick reply from gatsby, a member of Google's Blogger team, who suggested, "If this is an issue which you are especially concerned with, you might want to compose your posts in Docs first, which supports revision history." Not so helpful from my point of view. See prior paragraphs.

On the second sort of accident-protection I've implemented a crude sort of fix: I've created a private blog, one that is visible only to me, so that even if I accidentally publish a post no one can see it other than yours truly. I can draft my posts in that private Blogger space, stacking up as many half-baked ideas as I like and organizing them to my heart's content using labels (tags) applied to the posts. I think that'll work; it's been working thus far.

Despite these reservations, my early call is that Google got this one right: a usable editor for a publication platform, I can't complain about that.

Have you tried the new Blogger interface? What do you think?






Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Moving one's life to the cloud
It's new, but is it improved?

6 comments:

  1. I'm a novice user of google blogger.

    I have been using the updated google docs interface for quite some time. I can see how removal of the HTML editing features from google docs is an annoyance. I figured they knew what they were doing.

    I am a bit confused about the collaboration/publication feature from google docs to blogger though. I just started to use beta gdocs.io today in this regard. Seems to me the benefits would be to be able to embed a table in my google doc and have that come over to the themed blog. Obviously I'm missing something because most of the related html formatting doesn't come over. I saved the google doc as a zipped html file, and copied that into blogger as html, and that looks as expected however.

    Obviously, I'm missing something in the grand google plan here, or am doing something only a novice would do.

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  2. As far as I can tell, gdocs.io is not Google software: it's a third-party app, and I'm not sure I understand who the third party is. The top-level domain ".io" is a country code that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. The whois service for .io is not reachable as I type this comment.

    I haven't used the software myself.

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  3. You're right - I'm ditching the gdocs.io bit, since it doesn't do much that I was after. Seems a little scary having a third party in the middle with access to my documents.

    I'll just be downloading the google doc as html and pasting over into blogger until they clean things up a bit. Google help forum response says they're intending to address it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree about the third-party in the middle. If your initial use of gdocs.io involved giving that app access to your acct (e.g., giving it your password), first thing I'd do is change my password.

    Am I correct that gdocs.io published documents lose format is the forum thread you referred to? It's encouraging to see that the person responding (who has responded for gdocs.io in at least two other Google Docs forum post I looked at) makes it clear that gdocs.io is a third-party app. OTOH, her/his responses are a bit on the cryptic side, esp. in those other threads, in which gdocs.io is proposed as a solution with no reference to its "private beta" state as described in your (later) forum exchange.

    The border between cloud services one can trust and cloud services that are phishing vehicles for bad actors is a fuzzy one in these times. Something to watch.

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  5. I am one of the developers of GDocs.io. You are correct that it is a third-party service and we just put a statement on the site mentioning this. People seem to be confused about that. About the formatting issue... Yes, initially we decided to remove all formatting to create clean HTML. However, we shortly figured out that this is not the right approach. So, this is no longer an issue. About your security concerns... GDocs.io uses the OAuth protocol for secure communication. User password is not required and the granted permission can be withdrawn anytime by the user. This is best practice in terms of security.

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  6. @Utku Utkan: Thanks for weighing in directly. I do see the statement on your site explaining the GDocs.io is a third-party service, and I think it's good to try to clear up people's uncertainty or confusion on this point.

    I did not go so far as to create a Gdocs.io account, but I did initiate the process and confirmed that login is to accounts.google.com, which means (for the uninitiated) that you log in to Google, and Google confirms to Gdocs.io (via the OAuth protocol Utku mentioned) that you have logged in correctly. Gdocs.io takes advantage of the fact that you already have a Google account, but does not gain access to your password.

    I did not go far enough in the sign-up process or attempt to 'look under the hood' to determine what permissions / access to an individual's Google-hosted data or services is granted to Gdocs.io upon login via one's Google account.

    ReplyDelete