For many years Microsoft Office has reigned supreme as a productivity suite. Apple Works is still a minor player, but over the past several years the new kid on the block, G Suite from Google, has been giving Office a run for its money, with estimates that by January of 2017 G Suite had four million paying business customers and 70 million G Suite for Education users. In my opinion there are several reasons for this.
The popularity of Gmail and Google search: When you go to Google to search or check your mail you're going to see links encouraging you to try Chrome, Google Docs, and other company products.
Collaboration: Google Docs was one of the first products to get workplace and student collaboration right, which gave them a strong first-mover advantage.
Pricing: G Suite is free for individuals. Apple has since followed suit and made Works free. Microsoft still charges either an annual subscription for Office 365 or a hefty chunk of change for the standalone version of Office.
Chromebooks: Chromebooks have proven to be quite successful in the education market, bringing with them an ever-replenishing pool of new G Suite users.
In the March 2017 issue of AccessWorld I took a listen to "The Audio Tutorial for the Google Suite of Products by Mystic Access", narrated by Mystic Access founder Chris Grabowski. Now this same information is available in a new book, Getting Started with Google Suite: A Brief Overview of Google's Most Popular Productivity Apps, published by the National Braille Press.
The book's authorship lists Lisa Salinger, Kim Loftis, and Chris Grabowski, all members of the Mystic Access team, but since the latter two are thanked in the acknowledgements I think it's safe to assume that Lisa Salinger is the primary author.
The book is indeed a brief overview, clocking in at just under 15,000 words, but it covers a lot of ground, including: Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Drive, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Hangouts, and Calendar. Google Keep and Forms are not covered.
The book focuses most of its attention on using the various G Suite apps with a Windows PC and screen reader. This was definitely the right choice, in my opinion, since most blind individuals are using this platform. JAWS, NVDA and Window-Eyes are mentioned. Microsoft Narrator is not. There are brief discussions of accessing the various G Suite apps using a Mac or mobile device, but the book only touches on using a Chromebook—mostly when the author describes the slightly different hotkey combinations used by the ChromeVox screen reader. This is a definite oversight considering that for many young people his or her first introduction to G Suite is on the Chromebook issued by their schools.
Following the Introduction and other preliminary material Getting Started with Google Suite commences with a "Getting Started" chapter that describes the basics of G Suite and how to interact with the various apps using a screen reader. The remaining eight chapters detail the suite's various apps, beginning with Google Chrome and winding up with Google Calendar. You can either move through the book start to finish, or skip ahead to the chapter describing the G Suite product or products you wish to learn and use. This structure is simultaneously one of the book's greatest strengths and weaknesses.
Each chapter features a different G Suite app and offers a tutorial describing how to install, open, and use the app with a screen reader. For those wishing to obtain a quick start on one of these, the book is excellent at guiding you step-by-step through what you need to do to create a file or a document or a spreadsheet, edit it and save it, and do it all with keyboard commands and screen reader feedback. The author does an excellent job of highlighting situations where screen access is less than adequate, and offers tips to help you bypass these access glitches.
If I had no experience with Google Docs or Sheets and my employer told me tomorrow we were going to start using these apps so we could more effectively collaborate I would want a book like this that would get me going. That is this books greatest strength. However once you've worked through the chapter on one application, you will find a lot of duplication in the chapters to come. Indeed, some of the sections are identical from chapter to chapter. This makes some sense for a book that is about beginning to use G Suite apps.
Where Salinger may fall a tad short is in her inconsistent embrace of the reader. At some points she holds your hand quite firmly, leading you through a process step-by-step. Other times she leaps over large chasms without an explanation. For example, in the Chrome browser section she walks the user click-by-click through the process of creating a bookmark and later accessing it. Soon after, she includes a section describing how to manage Chrome extensions. Nowhere does she explain what an extension is, how to find and install browser extensions, or why you might wish to do so. I think here it would have been a good idea to perhaps offer a few extensions that can make browsing easier for those with visual impairments. She does mention the ChromeVox screen reader, but the mention is all too brief.
Salinger introduces G Suite braille support, but mostly to discuss switching it on in order to improve the voice accessibility of the various G Suite apps. She does not offer any insight into using G Suite with a braille display or share any tips or tricks she has learned that might make for a smoother experience.
I would not expect any introductory book to answer all of my questions. For example, when sharing a Google Doc, how do I know if that long revision to my monthly report was put in by my boss or by my colleague three cubicles down who always seems to find a way to sabotage my best work? Is it possible to create and print an exploding pie chart in Google Sheets? But there are places in this book where it seems basic information is missing. For example, if you need to be guided through creating a new Gmail account, you will probably wish to know a little something about how a web app like Google Sheets differs from a desktop app such as Excel. Calendar users will certainly wish to know how to subscribe to additional calendars from your school or workplace, how to invite someone to an event, and what to do when you receive a calendar invite.
I believe Getting Started with Google Suite, even with the shortcomings mentioned above, can be a valuable addition to your accessibility library. I know I would certainly want a copy if I were a student with a new Chromebook or my boss told me that tomorrow I needed to start collaborating with Google Docs. For those with more time, the choice between this book and the Mystic Access tutorial depends on your style of learning. If you prefer to learn by listening and following along as someone demonstrates various features and concepts, the audio tutorial may be the way to go. If you prefer to have words on a page to review with your screen reader or braille, and seek a readily accessible reference guide, then this book is definitely for you.
In either case, I encourage you to delve into G Suite. One of the ways accessible computing helps the blind, both students and employees, is by leveling the playing field and offering us an increased ability to participate and contribute with fellow students and work colleagues. We couldn't add to a whiteboard, but we can add our thoughts to a group discussion. We couldn't see a slideshow, but we can get the presentation app slides and review them independently. I believe accessible collaboration will prove to be the next boon for both blind students and employees.
After all, becoming a more involved part of any team can only enhance your own chances to contribute and be recognized and appreciated for your unique skills and abilities.
Getting Started with Google Suite: A Brief Overview of Google's Most Popular Productivity Apps by Lisa Salinger, Kim Loftis and Chris Grabowski is available from the National Braille Press in various formats including: braille, DAISY download, and e-Braille for $12; and either DAISY or e-braille on a USB Drive for $14.50
The Google Suite of Products Audio Tutorial is available from Mystic Access for $39 for download with an additional $15 for delivery on an SD card.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.