Book Review:
Google Apps Hacks

Author(s): Philipp Lenssen
Publisher: O'Reilly (2008)
ISBN: 059651588X
Web Site: http://oreilly.com/catalog/9780596515881/
Reviewer: Dave Cross

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I should confess that this book wasn't what I thought it was. I was interested in reading it because I misread the title. I thought it was about the Google App Engine - which is a technology that I really want to spend some time investigating. But it wasn't about the Google App engine, it was about Google Apps - the set of online applications that Google have been introducing over the last few years.

That misunderstanding meant that I had to adjust my expectations of the book somewhat. Instead of a book aimed at developers explaining the inner detail of a technology, I got a book which was firmly aimed at end users.

I don't often read computer books aimed at end users. I find that I'm not in the target audience. Unless an application is very complex then I like to think that I can work out how to use it without resorting to manuals. Of course that means that I often end up using only a small fraction of the functionality of an application.

The Google application set is no exception to this rule. I've been using many of the Google applications for some time. In particular I've started to write a lot of documents and spreadsheets using Google Docs, the online office suite which is intended as a replacement for Microsoft Office. I tend to work on several different computers so having my documents available on a web site means that the latest version is available to me on any computer.

Google Docs is one of the most widely-used parts of the Google application set and it's a good place for this book to start. The first four chapters present an over view of the applications and then one chapter each concentrating on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. As expected I found that I already knew most of what was described in the early parts of the chapters, but I found myself saying "oh, that's useful" quite a lot towards the ends of the chapters as I read about features that I hadn't come across before. For example, I had no idea that the spreadsheet application was able to access data from external web sites and extract information which can be used in your calculations. I'm sure I'll find that useful in the future.

The next chapter talks about what is probably the best-known Google application - Gmail (or, as it's known in the UK, GoogleMail). I have a Gmail account, but currently I only use it for a couple of high-volume mailing lists. I certainly learned a lot about Gmail and I'll probably start using it a bit more now. This chapter, however, demonstrated the obvious problem about using a book to learn about this products - improvements to the Google applications appear frequently and some of the information in the book is already slightly out of date.

Subsequent chapters go into other parts of the Google application set in a similar level of detail. Google Calendar, iGoogle (the customisable Google homepage) and Google Reader all get a chapter to themselves. Then we have a few chapters that cover multiple projects. There's a chapter on Picassa and YouTube, one on Google Maps, Google Earth and SketchUp (the last of which I had never heard of) and one on Blogger. The final chapter is about tracking the success of your sites using Google Analytics. In just about every chapter I learned something that will be useful to me.

All in all, I found this book well worth reading and I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in making better use of the Google applications. There are only two caveats that you should consider. Firstly, there's the fact that it's a very wide-ranging book and I think that few people would use all of the applications and therefore find all of the chapters useful. Secondly, as I mentioned above, all of the Google applications are being updated and improved at an incredible rate, so this is definitely going to be a book with a rather short shelf life.