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How to Collaborate on Documents Over the Internet

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There’s no need to huddle around the same computer or send files back and forth over email if you want to collaborate with other people. You can all edit the same copy of the document — you can even edit it together in real time.

We recommend Google Docs because it’s a more mature collaboration solution and we have the most experience with it. Microsoft’s Office Online recently gained real-time coauthoring features, so it may also be worth a look.

Google Docs

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Google Docs is Google’s office suite. Like most Google services, it’s a free application you access in your web browser. Files you create in Google Docs are saved to Google Drive and associated with your Google account. Because these files live online instead of on your computer, it’s easy for you to share the document with other people. Google controls the document and can give other people access to it.

To use Google Docs for collaboration, head to the Google Drive website and sign in with your Google account. Click the Create button and select the type of document you want to work on to create a new document. You can also open an existing document stored in Google Drive or upload a document from your computer.

With the document open, click the Share button. You can hover over this button to see who has access to this document.

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Enter the email addresses of the people who you want to collaborate on the document with. People you add have edit permission by default, but you can also restrict them to only commenting or viewing the document. The “Can view” permission is useful if you just want to show a document to people.

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By default, people will receive an email when you share the document with them. The email contains a link to the document so they can edit it along with you. If you’re not working on the document, that’s fine — they can edit it and you’ll see their changes when you return to the document later.

When multiple people are working on a document, you’ll see multiple text entry cursors. You’ll see in real time what other people are typing into the document, so you can collaborate on a complicated document without bumping into each other and having to resolve conflicting edits later. There’s even a chat feature you can use to talk to your coauthors.

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To view a list of documents shared with you, you can click the Shared with me category in Google Drive.

Office Online

Microsoft’s Office Online was formerly known as Office Web Apps. It’s a completely free, web-based version of Microsoft Office you access in your browser. Because it’s a web app, it’s not the full Microsoft Office and is more limited. You can do some collaboration with the desktop versions of Microsoft Office, but it just isn’t as mature a collaboration solution as Google Docs offers. For example, only one person can work on the same paragraph at a time when collaborating in Office 2013.

Office Online is available at Office.com. It requires a Microsoft account, and it saves your documents to Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly known as SkyDrive) file storage service.

To get started, visit the Office Online site and open your app of choice — or visit the OneDrive site and open an existing document. With a document open, click the Share button at the top of the page. You can also click the FILE menu on the ribbon, click Share, and select Share with People.

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Enter the email addresses you want to share with and choose the permissions you want to grant. You can choose whether people you share the document with can edit the document and whether they’ll need a Microsoft account to do so.

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The people you share the document with will receive email invites with a link to your document. They can open the document, click the Edit button, and select Edit in Word Online to work on it. You can manage the list of people that have permission to view or edit the document from the Share pane.

real time editing on word online


There are a variety of other ways to work on the same documents in real time over the Internet, but you’re probably better off sticking with these collaboration features. Google Docs and Office Online both make this simple and include capable office apps to work with.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/23/14