Some of Google's best stuff has been done by engineers goofing off on the job. The company's techies all get paid "20 percent time"—a day per week in which they're "free to pursue projects they're passionate about." This idea might seem profligate to outsiders, but Google News and the money-making AdSense service each started as an engineer's pet project.
As Google nears 10,000 employees, though, it's become impossible to keep up with the 100 or so public products and projects that have come and gone. Some, like Gmail and Google Earth, are huge hits. Others, like the discontinued Google Answers, fizzle. In between are a few low-profile applications with real potential, most of which can be found on a mini-site called Google Labs. Here's my short list of Google's coolest obscure apps.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets.It sounds boring until you try it: a browser-based word processor with most of your favorite features from Microsoft Word. Fonts, formatting, spelling, images, search and replace, word counter, comments, and the track-changes feature that's the main reason my editors demand I use Word in the first place. Google Docs saves to HTML, Word, and PDF formats, among others.
Best of all, Google's word processor starts saving the file to backup servers as soon as you start typing—you don't have to remember to save it yourself. Files are automatically stored online, where you have the option of sharing them with other users. (You can also save them to your desktop.) I've used Google Docs to edit a Wired article with a co-author three time zones away. Eagle-eyed futurists have spotted a more surprising use: Co-workers in adjacent seats can edit the same file at the same time instead of hunching over each other's screens.
Google Docs is a suitable Word stand-in for most uses, but, unlike Word, you can't call it up if you're not online. Google Spreadsheets is only OK. It won't replace Excel anytime soon, at least until it supports Excel-style macros and charts. A Google spokeswoman told me it's designed for "families just looking to organize the carpool/the PTA bake sale/their kids' homework."
Google Notebook.I bookmark several new pages a day at home, at the office, and on my laptop. I then waste a lot of time trying to sync and manage my bookmarks. Google Notebook makes this one-click easy by adding a button to the bottom of my Firefox browser. When I find a page I want to remember, I click the button, and a small note-taking window pops up. I can then paste selected text or type my own notes. Like with Docs & Spreadsheets, my notes are saved on Google's server. They're centrally collected, sharable with others (if I want), and available from any browser—I just log in to my Google account to see them. I started using Google Notebook to collect pages and notes for this article. I can search my own notes or search all other users' shared notes at once. There are three dozen saved and/or commented-upon Slate articles in the system already.