Google Vs. Zoho: Can Either Replace Microsoft Office?

October 30, 2007

By Serdar Yegulalp, Barbara Krasnoff

The gold standard for office productivity has become Microsoft Office — a suite of applications used by most of us in our day-to-day business and personal activities. While there have been a number of commercial (Corel WordPerfect Office) and free (OpenOffice.org) alternatives available, it’s the new online applications that have been causing the most talk — and, possibly, offering the most promise.

Until recently, the idea of online applications replacing locally-installed software was, to say the least, impractical. In fact, before a majority of computer users were on broadband connections, it would have been completely useless: if you’re only online a few hours a day you can’t confine your word processing and spreadsheet activity to those hours.

That has changed in the last few years. Most of us are online most of the time — certainly, we have continuous access to the Internet at work and at home. As a result, using an online word processor or calendar app sounds a lot less ridiculous than it did before. And there are some things current software applications do rather badly (such as sharing files for collaborative work) that online apps are a lot better at.

The idea of committing to a Web connection for your basic tasks is still a tricky one, though. While the Internet may be ubiquitous in homes and offices, getting online from your commuter train or while you wait for your kid to finish dance class is problematic at best. In addition, glitches in broadband service, especially in remote areas that depend on satellite service, are common enough that the likelihood of even temporary loss of access to a word processor or spreadsheet can make many of us a bit nervous. But if you’re willing to take the risk, two Web services have taken the lead in offering online applications that have the potential to, one day, knock Microsoft Office off its pedestal.

But can Google and/or Zoho really challenge something as entrenched in the marketplace as Microsoft Office? In the following pages, we compare each of these online contenders to the leader of the pack by matching them up to six of Microsoft Office’s applications: Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Access. (Note: There is currently no database application such as Access in Google.) How do Google and Zoho rate? Is it time to switch, or are the two online services still second-raters when compared to Microsoft’s established frontrunners? Read on, and see what you think.

Introducing: Google

Google, which has joined Microsoft and Apple as a contender for “tech company most likely to take over the world,” has been slowly buying up interesting online applications and integrating them into its own line of advertising-supported products. It has accumulated a wide range of applications: word processing, e-mail, photo album, simple Web site developer, blogging application, and so on.

However, while there is a great deal of value in the variety, there is little to no attempt to organize them into a cohesive whole. The nearest that Google comes to this is in its Google Docs application, which combines a word processor, spreadsheet app, and presentation package. Calendar and Gmail, apps you’d normally expect to be part of a productivity suite, are totally separate. You can use Google’s home page, iGoogle, to organize some of these onto the same page, but it’s not quite as efficient a method as that used by, yes, Microsoft.

Introducing: Zoho

Zoho’s motto is “Work. Online” and its aim is to provide you with portable replacements for many of the programs you expect to find installed on a desktop PC. The analogy the folks at Zoho use is a desk phone vs. a mobile phone: the fact that you can take your cell phone nearly anywhere (as long as there’s service) gives it possibilities a regular phone doesn’t have.

google

Despite Zoho being new to the game, it’s been adding applications and features to its online office suite with persistent regularity; for example, it recently added e-mail to its feature set. Zoho even has some applications, such as its Creator database, that many hard drive-based packages do not.There’s no question about it: Zoho is obviously serious in its bid to offer people at least some of Office’s functionality without the price, and with the added bonus of being able to work anywhere that there’s a Web browser and an Internet connection.

Replacing Microsoft Word: Zoho Writer

Writer, Zoho’s word processor, has been designed to sport roughly the same level of functionality as “classic” Word (Word 97 through 2003). It offers the same clutch of frequently used features that also turn up in programs like AbiWord or OpenOffice.org. The editing features are nowhere near what they ought to be compared to even low-end Word clones on the desktop, but Writer balances its shortcomings with some collaborative features that are interesting and potentially useful.

At first glance, Writer looks and behaves like it should: a word processor, emulated via a Web browser’s interface, with most of the controls behaving as you might expect. Copying and pasting text from existing Word documents preserves a lot of its formatting, but you’ll probably want to use the Import function to bring in existing .doc files. If you want to convert documents en masse, you can e-mail them to an address specially generated for your Zoho account and wait for them to show up in the My Docs panel on the left-hand side of the screen. Documents can also be imported from a URL, though when I imported an HTML document from my site some of the images inexplicably showed up broken.

While Writer works for casual use, I found that many things I would take for granted in a full word processor are simply not there. Page headers and footers, for instance, cannot be edited at all; documents have an automatic “Page x of y” footer inserted on each page. There’s no equation editor, either, so anyone doing scientific or technical work will be stymied (although I suspect they’d already have spent the money for a desktop suite instead of using a service like Zoho). Printing, likewise, is limited to the way the browser itself handles print jobs. When I tried to print a simple document, I got extraneous headers and footers supplied by the browser itself.

Writer seems to work best as a text editor rather than a full-featured word processor, since the formatting and construction of documents is limited by what’s possible in a Web browser. Sometimes this shows up in unexpected ways: One page I imported included some JavaScript that caused images to zoom to full size when clicked, and the scripting was still able to run while the page was in the editor. I worried about what possible effects retaining such functions might have on the program at large.

I also kept running into the rough edges of what is still essentially an alpha product. Image handling seems to be very spotty. I sometimes couldn’t edit the attributes of imported images, and the only real image-editing option possible with an inserted picture is to resize it. Your best bet is to make sure whatever images you’re working with are as finished as they can be before you upload them.

The collaborative features, though, are what make the program truly useful. A document can be published, which allows other people to submit comments on it, or you can share documents with specific people, essentially sending them an e-mail inviting them to work on it with you. Shared documents can be read-only or marked as read-write to allow others to make changes. It’s a lot cheaper than setting up a document server for Microsoft Office — but at the same time, you have to keep in mind the constraints of the program. I liked the export-to-PDF function — probably the best way to preserve document formatting — except when the export function inexplicably yielded up a blank file.

Replacing Microsoft Word: Google Docs

When Google bought the online word processor Writely in 2006, the app was already attracting attention. It’s been substantially tweaked since then, but it remains a very useful tool. You want to do some quick word processing for your blog? Perfect. You want to write a letter and share it with your family? Absolutely. You want to construct a formal report with headers, footnotes, and other interesting formatting? Time to go back to Word.

Google’s word processor is part of what was once known as Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and which is now called Google Docs (probably because it also includes Presentation, Google’s new slideshow application). All three applications are accessible through a single Google Docs interface that offers up a list of current documents that can be organized by name, date, or folder; topics at the side allow you to filter the list according to folder, type, or who you’re sharing with. You can either start a new document or upload HTML, Word, .RTF, .ODT, or .SXW (StarOffice) documents up to 500KB in size.

The working interface of Google Docs is a model of simplicity. A drop-down File menu offers basic save/print options; you can also export your document as an HTML, .RTF, Word, OpenOffice, .PDF, or text file, get a word count, or do a find and replace.

Three other tabs offer access to Edit, Inset, and Revisions features; as you click on each, you get the associated toolbar below. The Edit toolbar offers basic formatting functionality: cut/copy/paste; bold, italics, underline; font, size, color, highlighting; bulleted and numbered lists, flush left, right, and center. The Insert tab lets you place links, comments, tables, bookmarks, separators (for instance, page breaks) and special characters in the text. Revisions (which is available for spreadsheets and presentations as well) gives you the chance to revert to past versions of your document.

That is pretty much it. If you want page numbers, headers, or footers — sorry. Don’t even think about more complex print formats like columns or indexing. Google Docs is mainly for day-to-day tasks, especially if your text is eventually meant to be posted on the Web. In fact, the Share and Publish features, which are accessible via two tabs on the right side of the working area, are the major strengths of the Google applications.

Share lets you invite friends and colleagues as collaborators (with full editing capabilities) or viewers; you can give your collaborators permission to invite others. Another feature, the somewhat confusingly named “Invitations may be used by anyone,” actually allows you use mailing lists to invite groups of users (who must have a registered Google account in order to edit the document).

I’ve found the Share feature to be very useful when working on documents with other people — even in real time (a discreet message at the bottom of the window lets you know who is currently editing the document). You can also publish your document to a Google page (the URL is assigned by Google) or to your blog. Unfortunately, however, there is no way to undo any specific changes to the document. You can see who made which changes by checking the Revisions area, which color codes the changes.

On the whole, Google Docs is a good basic word processor, especially if you tend to live online. However, most of us will still need to keep Microsoft Word around for our professional word processing.

Replacing Microsoft Excel: Zoho Sheet

Sheet is one of the more polished and functional of the Zoho applications. It’s an almost note-perfect replacement for Excel or similar products — perhaps because a spreadsheet lends itself a little more easily to being replicated in a Web browser than, say, a word processor. And yet there are still some things that get in the way.

If you have existing spreadsheets you want to import, Sheet lets you do this by uploading files directly through a browser or pointing to a file somewhere on the Web. Excel 97/2003 documents, OpenDocument and OpenOffice 1.x spreadsheets, and plain old .CSV files are all supported, but as of yet there doesn’t appear to be a way to e-mail documents to be converted into Sheet (as with Writer). Sheet also makes a best-effort attempt to preserve the formatting of the imported documents, including hyperlinks.

The list of math functions available is pretty impressive — there’s dozens of them in the full list — and when you insert a function in a cell you can browse the function list by category (financial, statistical, engineering, etc.) to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. Better yet, there’s full contextual documentation for each function.

Some limitations of the program, however, really frustrated me. Inserting functions or formulas didn’t always work — I sometimes had to save the document, close it, and reopen it to get the computed formulas to show up. Another frustration: you can’t input a range of cells to be arbitrarily selected. This would make it possible to select a range of cells that is too big to fit on the screen, which right now is next to impossible.

What I also kept running into, again, were limits of either the program’s design or the fact that it was running as a browser document. You can select a range of cells by clicking and dragging (as is done in just about every other spreadsheet), but if you right-click, suddenly you’re only getting a contextual menu for the one cell you had the pointer over.

Once again, it’s the collaborative functions that make Sheet really useful. You can publish individual cells, ranges of cells, or share whole sheets or workbooks with specific users. The export-to-PDF function is also useful — in fact, that’s probably the best way to get consistent output from the Zoho suite for printing.

The biggest drawback to the program is something I saw consistently throughout Zoho: often you’re at the mercy of what a Web browser can do. With Sheet, though, I have confidence the programmers can find elegant ways to work around those limitations and make a good program even better.

Replacing Microsoft Excel: Google Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet is one of the three applications that makes up Google Docs. Like the word processor, it is a solid basic product with little of the sophistication of its MIcrosoft counterpart.

For those who use spreadsheets at their most basic, the Google application is very simple to work with. A tab titled Formulas gives immediate access to the most popular operations (Sum, Average, etc.); click on the “More” link, and you get a pop-out box that offers a wide selection of operations, organized by type (Math, Financial, Logical, etc.). Be careful where you click, though; once you have an operation open, any cell you click on becomes part of that operation, which is handy if you’re careful, but in my case, it resulted in quite a few extraneous entries.

Because Spreadsheet is definitely a work in progress, you may find yourself occasionally resorting to workarounds that later caused problems. For example, when Spreadsheet was new I needed a series of dates (such as such as 01/01/2007, 01/02/2007) in my A column. At the time the program didn’t have a feature to automatically create a range of incremental dates. I created a workaround that added +1 to each date, but when I deleted one of the dates, it created havoc with the rest of the series. (Google has since added that feature.)

The charting features, accessed from the Edit menu, work well, but your options for customizing the charts are definitely limited. You can create five types of charts — column, line, bar, pie, and scatter — and several sub-types of each. You can specify which data to include and label the two axes, but that’s about it. Even for simple charts, that’s not quite enough. For example, when I created a chart based on two columns of data, one of which were simple numbers and the other of which were dates, I couldn’t find any way to get the actual dates to show up as labels on the x-axis.

You can import .XLS, .ODS, .CSV, and .TXT files, and export in those formats as well as HTML and PDF. You can add worksheets; sort each column in increasing or decreasing order; freeze rows; and create charts. Many of the formatting, sharing, and revision features are the same as are provided in Google Docs. Like Docs, you can also view your spreadsheets on a mobile device, but the formatting on that device isn’t quite as consistent as it is with Docs.

Google Spreadsheets is very handy for those of us who only need to occasionally use spreadsheets for organizing data or doing simple calculations, and it offers enough operations to suit most uses. But for more complex calculations, or if you depend on charts to visualize your data, Excel is still the better deal.

Replacing Microsoft Outlook: Zoho Mail

Zoho Mail boasts the closest approximation to its Microsoft counterpart (Outlook) in the Zoho galaxy — not just because it handles mail, as the name implies, but also because it provides quite a few of Outlook’s other functions, like calendaring, task lists, contact management and so on. It’s closer to a mini-suite than just an application, actually, given how much is packed into it.

The interface is similar to Outlook’s own multi-paned display (including a customizable “swipe bar” on the left-hand side), so people making the switch from Outlook should not be thrown too badly at first. As with many of Zoho’s other offerings, the big plus is collaboration. Multiple Mail users can be aggregated into a Group, and interact closely by sharing information (documents, messages, etc.) and assigning duties and tasks. But I suspect the big test of how useful Mail will be for existing Office users will come after Zoho rolls out closer integration for Outlook.

When you use Mail, you “connect” a third-party POP3-accessible mailbox to your Zoho Mail account, Mail will then poll that account periodically, even when you’re not logged in. Mail also assumes by default, correctly, that e-mail from any account you’re hooking up should be left in the mailbox, since you might still be accessing it from another client. Also bear in mind that if you’re sending e-mail from Zoho, you need to have access to an outbound (SMTP) e-mail server that will accept authenticated connections from third-party clients.

Newly-created mail can be edited as either plain-text or HTML — I’m a staunch user of plain text e-mail, so I opted for that automatically. The address fields autosuggest entries from your contacts list, and you can add contacts from the From: field of any e-mail you open up, so it’s relatively easy to build up a contact list from scratch. If you want to import an existing contacts list, you can upload a VCF, LDIF or CSV file, but there’s no two-way integration. (Zoho is working on adding closer integration with Office to allow things like this in the future.) I also liked the universal search function, which lets you hunt for anything filed in Mail with a keyword.

If you’re an Outlook user, the calendar function is probably going to be one of the first things you try to migrate data to. Right now, Calendar only accepts imported data in ICS format (something you need a little third-party help to accomplish), but the list of functions in Calendar itself is impressive enough that you are not going to feel functionally deprived. Event reminders can be e-mailed to you or displayed as popup windows, and scheduled events can be related to items in the Tasks list if needed. There doesn’t appear to be a way to import lists of tasks, but the way tasks are set up is also closely reminiscent of Outlook, with priority, status, reminder notices, percentage of completion and the ability to assign tasks to other team members.

Other elements in the Mail mini-suite echo or incorporate elements of other Zoho applications. The Documents function, for instance, lets you upload and organize all manner of files. (Uploaded audio files can even be played back in the browser). Notes is a freeform, categorizable notepad much like Outlook’s own Notes function, and the Links section lets you organize libraries of URLs that are either entered manually or imported from an existing document. Also included are links to Writer, Sheet, and Show, all of which open instances of those programs within Mail itself.

Mail isn’t free — it’s one of the more advanced, for-pay components of the Zoho suite, and given how ambitious it is I’m not surprised they want to charge for its usage. But perhaps in the future we’ll see a stripped-down, no-cost version for those of us who don’t need the full gamut of features.

Replacing Microsoft Outlook: Gmail/Google Calendar

Google would have an excellent alternative to Microsoft Outlook, if its various personal information apps would only work together.

Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, is the most interesting, and different, of all its applications. Unlike Outlook (and most other e-mail applications) , Gmail doesn’t let you use folders to organize your messages, aside from basics like the Inbox and Sent Mail folders. Instead, you are asked to label them; you can then filter your inbox to show only the e-mails matching that label. It’s not difficult to use — you can create and assign as many labels as you need, and you can have them automatically assigned as each message comes in. (You can’t, however, choose to filter for two labels, or look at all your e-mails except a certain label.)

Gmail also offers a variety of filtering and forwarding options; if your Inbox is getting too unwieldy but you don’t want to delete any e-mails, you can archive those messages you don’t really need anymore. But of course, this is Google, so if you’re looking for a specific e-mail, even an archived one, the fastest way to find it is to simply search on a phrase. If it’s there, you’ll find it.

Gmail is nicely flexible when it comes to using the service as an extension of your other accounts. For example, if you’d prefer to use Gmail with Outlook or another e-mail application, you can download Gmail as POP mail. On the other end, you can use Gmail to send mail from your other e-mail addresses (so that you don’t have to confuse your correspondents with too many different e-mail addresses), and you can fetch mail from up to five other accounts.

One of my favorite aspects of Gmail is the way it threads conversations. While applications such as Outlook treat each e-mail is seen as an independent entity, Gmail sees messages as items in a thread (or, as Google puts it, a “conversation”), so that each appears onscreen as one in a series of overlapping cards. Thus, an e-mail back-and-forth can be immediately seen in context.

Google’s Calendar application is also excellent; unfortunately, it is not paired with Gmail in any effective way — you can’t use Gmail’s contact list to make an appointment in Google Calendar, for example. Calendar makes it simple to add events, invite others to scheduled events, and track your invitations. It also lets you include as many private and public “calendars” as you like: you can track separate work and home calendars, your spouse’s and kids’ schedules, and add publicly-available iCal calendars. There is a mobile version of the Google Calendar available for your smartphone (including the iPhone). However, there is as yet no way to access Calendar off-line.

For many of us, a Todo list is a must, but Google doesn’t offer any type of task tracking. There are, if you look around the Web, a number of third-party software apps that will work alongside Google Calendar and/or iGoogle (Google’s desktop home page) — I’m particularly fond of one called RememberTheMilk.

One of the biggest disappointments about Gmail is its contact listings. Granted, Gmail is about e-mail, not about keeping track of your contacts, but as long as you’re at it, why not offer that as well? Gmail does maintain a contact list that is populated from sent/received e-mails; each contact is associated with any messages that has been sent or received from that person, which is handy. You can also import contacts in CSV format and add images, address, etc. But it’s obvious that Contacts is not meant to be a serious tool for tracking your associates — if, for example, a colleague has sent you e-mail from more than one address, you’ll have two contact entries with no apparent way to merge them.

So while Google offers a number of really useful personal information apps — Gmail and Calendar are standouts — if you’re an Outlook user who wants to integrate your e-mail, scheduling, and contact information in any kind of efficient way, you may want to stick with Microsoft for now.

Replacing Microsoft PowerPoint: Zoho Show

Show emulates most of the really important core functionality of PowerPoint — in other words, all the things the vast majority of us use PowerPoint for in the first place. The most recent versions of PowerPoint have new design tools which Show does not have, but again, Show’s got the vast majority of what people need to get this work done. Most people will have no trouble creating polished-looking work with it.

Many of the tools and their behavior in Show will be familiar. New presentations can be created with your choice of several basic theme templates which can be customized to a fair degree. When you insert new slides, you also have your choice of slide templates — blank, title only, title with bullet points, and so on. Copying or reordering existing slides is as easy as right-clicking on them or dragging and dropping them in the thumbnail sidebar, and adding text, images or geometric shapes is about as intuitive as it can be.

When you click “Slide Show,” the presentation opens in a separate window (which can be maximized to fill the screen by hitting F11), and can be played back at your choice of speeds. Presentations can be shared out remotely, exported to HTML, or embedded in another Web page, but unfortunately there’s no way to export to PDF.

Show would be very limited if you couldn’t also import existing presentations. Both regular PowerPoint PPT / PPS files and OpenOffice ODP files can be uploaded and converted with good fidelity. Documents can also be imported as “read-only,” which converts all text to images.

Some of the more exotic things missing from Show would be difficult to replicate in a browser-based app — like dual-display support, so the presentation could be on one display and your notes on another. For what it attempts to do so far, though, Show is more than adequate for most people.

Replacing Microsoft PowerPoint: Google Presentation

Google Presentation is the latest addition to the Google Docs suite, and as such, it’s the least developed. It’s accessible through the Google Docs main screen; you simply click on the Google Doc’s drop-down New menu and choose Presentation.

At the beginning, you get a simple opening card offering a place to put a title and subtitle. After that, it’s very easy to insert a theme (at the time I was working with Presentation, I counted 15) and one of several layouts, including a blank page for the more creative among us.

Google Presentation is simple, both in execution and available features. You can insert text and change font, color, size, and highlight. You can add images and change their size (the aspect ration is automatically preserved). You can add links to URLs and email addresses. You can create numbered and bulleted lists, center text or place it flush left/right. You can take any document you’ve created in Docs (but not Spreadsheet) and save it as a presentation.

And that’s about it. If you’re planning to add fancy transitions to your presentation, you won’t find them here — in fact, there aren’t any transitions of any kind, and don’t even think about music or other multimedia.

However, you can make your presentation easily available online — in fact, when you start the presentation, there is automatically an area at the side for the audience and a button that let’s you “take control” of the presentation. You can chat by typing into a box at the bottom of the window. (Presumably, any discussion you’d have about the presentation would have to come from a phone conversation, or another source.)

Presentation, like some of Google’s other apps (for example, Google Creator) seems to be aimed at the most basic functionality that somebody would possibly need. Certainly, you could put together a reasonably good presentation in record time using Google Presentation, but if you wanted anything approaching professionalism, you would have to create your presentation in, say, PowerPoint (you can upload a PPT or PPS file). You could then use Google’s share and/or publish features to show it off.

Replacing Microsoft OneNote: Zoho Notebook

Notebook is like a binder for assembling material in many formats, both from other parts of Zoho and from the Web at large. You can pick up Sheet spreadsheets, Writer documents, Show presentations, RSS feeds, video, audio and plain old images and text, and scrapbook them together in various ways. Embedded video or audio plays back via a Flash application, much as it does on sites like MySpace or YouTube.

Notebook is a little like a cross between a desktop publisher and an HTML editor, although its function is not really to allow creation of standalone Web pages or sites. It’s more a way to compile disparate things in a sort of fixed presentation format. Those of you familiar with Microsoft’s OneNote will find all this strikingly familiar, although Notebook lacks many of OneNote’s more advanced features, like transcribing handwritten notes.

A Notebook document consists of pages — again, like a scrapbook — onto which you place elements. When you add an element you’re given several choices of actions you can perform: you can point to a URL somewhere, upload the element manually, type it in (if it’s text), or import it from elsewhere in your Zoho portfolio of documents. The element can be sized — this is the part that reminded me most of a desktop publishing app — pinned into place, or floated to the front or back. Notebook also supports version-tracking for individual objects, so you can revert changes if need be.

If you don’t want to upload audio or video, you can record either one directly into a Notebook document via a Flash application. You’ll need to allow Flash to access your microphone or camera to do that, so this might not work on a configuration where the machine has been locked down, but it’s still a splendid feature. Some formats aren’t supported directly but can be embedded anyway: a PDF file added to a page, for example, didn’t show up as a visible image, it did show up as an icon with a link to launch it in a separate window.

The published results are viewed in a special Notebook interface with page-flipping controls, not just as flat Web pages. Again, Zoho’s universal sharing functions come in handy here: you can share not only whole notebooks and individual pages, but individual objects, either with the world at large or with specific people. This makes Notebook a good way to share things that don’t fit into an easily-pigeonholed category, even if the implementation is still limited, again, by what a browser’s capable of.

Replacing Microsoft OneNote: Google Notebook

Google Notebook
Google Notebook is less a data catch-all than a way to track all the small interesting stuff that you find on the Web — like that quote you saw on Valleywag, for example, or the snazzy new mobile phones reported on, uh, InformationWeek.

Unlike Microsoft OneNote, which is fashioned to look like a scrapbook, Notebook works on a simpler level. The app attaches itself as a button to the lower right-hand corner of your browser; click on it, and you get a small pop-up window with the name of that particular Notebook on top (you can create as many as you wish).

To add new entries, you can click on the “Clip” or “New note” buttons in the Notebooks window; drag and drop a highlighted segment of a Web page into the window; or right click on a highlighted segment and click on the “Note This” menu item that Google adds to your browser’s right-click menu. However you do it, the result is that the highlighted text clip and/or image is saved to that notebook, together with the name of the page (which is automatically linked to its URL). There is a separate area for each item where you can add comments, or you can edit the entry itself.

Your Notebooks are listed to the side of your item window; the list can be visible or hidden. You can delete notes or move them to new Notebooks from the small browser window; if you want to do a search through all your items, you need to go to your Notebook’s home page — this is essentially a Google page that lets you do a typically efficient Google search.

You can also, of course, share your Notebooks, and this can be a powerful tool. When you want to share a Web reference with a friend or colleague, there is nothing easier than simply dropping the reference into a shared Notebook, where it is instantly available. There is one problem, though: Unless you actually tell your colleague that the reference is there, they may not notice the addition. It would be a great improvement if there was some way to notify the users of shared notebooks that a new entry had been made.

In short, while Google Notebook is not in the same league as Microsoft OneNote, which collects other data besides that found on the Web, it is an extremely useful applet for those of us who need to quickly collect and organize Web factoids as we surf.

Replacing Microsoft Access: Zoho Creator

Creator fills a sadly neglected niche: It’s a database application something like what FileMaker user to be and what Microsoft Access never really was to begin with. Also, unlike most other online applications, Creator is not at the mercy of your Web browser but a complement to it — it’s a great example of how to put together a powerful AJAX application that works well.

When you create a database in Creator, you can start entirely from scratch or use one of a set of prefab data collection forms: available templates include a bug tracker, DVD collection form, to-do list, and, whatever its usefulness to you, a blood donation form. Creator’s template designer is extremely powerful. You can drag and drop fields and field elements, or assign scriptable actions to individual fields when the user adds or changes data. The scripting engine for Creator, by the way, is amazingly powerful and well-designed. You need to understand JavaScript syntax to make the most of it, but the way it facilitates script creation and editing is downright artful. There are desktop applications that don’t have tools this good.

You can import data into Creator from an existing Excel or .CSV file or, as with Writer you can e-mail a plain-text data dump to a specially-generated e-mail address (Creator provides you with a template for the text format). You can also copy and paste data in tab-delimited format into an input field. (The latter might actually be easier, since you can simply declare the first row of the pasted data to be the field names, which is probably closer to the format most such data is already in).

When you set up views for entering or displaying data, Creator provides five basic models: a list view, a spreadsheet, a summary, a calendar and (newly introduced) a graphical chart. Pick the one that suits your data best: the calendar view is great for organizing appointments or other data ranges where the date is the most crucial element, while spreadsheet and list are best for seeing whole sheets of data at once. For the chart view, you need to pick which records are to be used to generate each axis or aspect of the chart you’re generating, but it takes very little time to select what you want, and the results look remarkably professional.

As with the other Zoho tools, the sharing functions make Creator particularly useful. Other users can be invited to add data or edit the database schema itself; or the data input forms can be made public to allow anyone to submit data as needed. Another sharing option of sorts, “Embed in Website,” generates HTML code to allow an input form to be embedded in a separate Web site via an iframe.

A slightly more upscale version of Creator, named DB and Reports, went online as I was evaluating Zoho. It’s still somewhat rough, but the emphasis here is more on creating charts, reports, pivot tables, and views from existing data. It also understands SQL queries from many broadly-used dialects of SQL (including MySQL, SQL Server, Oracle, PostgreSQL, and ANSI), and can import existing data from standard file formats like XLS and CSV. Most people will want to start with Creator and graduate to DB if they haven’t used this sort of thing before.

The Verdict: Zoho

Because Zoho is an online application, it’s limited by two things: connectivity and the capacities of a Web browser. That said, the makers of the Zoho suite have done a lot to ameliorate both of these things.

The first problem, connectivity, affects not only the availability of data, but also your ability to use the suite at all. To offset this, you can install desktop versions of some of the Zoho apps (Writer, Sheet, and Show, to name three) which can then access your documents on the Zoho server as needed. These local versions of the apps use the Desktopize toolkit to make the program(s) run locally, although if you want to use them entirely offline you also need to install the Google Gears browser extension. Another cross-compatibility feature is a plugin for Microsoft Office that allows Word and Excel to open and save documents directly to and from the Zoho repository.

The issue of browser capacity is more problematic, and involves a constant clash between the behaviors I would have expected out of a desktop application and the behaviors I’ve come to expect from a Web site. For instance, the “page loading” activity icon in Firefox would sometimes start up when I did something, which led me to believe that at any second the page would erase itself and refresh. False alarms like this caused me to stop working for seconds on end in anticipation of things that never materialized. Right-clicking doesn’t always give you predictable results, either. I’m used to the idea of right-clicking on something to get a context menu, but sometimes a right-click action gave me the browser’s right-click menu, and not the application in the browser.

Within the confines of what can be done comfortably in a browser, the Zoho applications are downright inspiring. As long as you don’t run afoul of those limitations, it’s possible to get real work done. But at least for now, there are still many things that will be the domain of a desktop application.

The Verdict: Google

Google has made some attempts to collect its varied range of applications into some kind of order, but on the whole, because only some of them are associated with others, you can only judge each app on its own.

In addition, judged against desktop applications such as those in Microsoft Office, Google’s aren’t quite ready to take over. For basic usage, Google’s word processor, spreadsheet and (to a lesser extent) presentation package are all fine. Gmail, because it works so differently than its peers, can be considered either an innovative and highly useful way to work with your e-mail, or too awkward, depending on the individual. (The fact that you can now use IMAP to sync Gmail across devices is a real plus.) And Google Calendar is an excellent way to keep up with (and share) your schedule. But on the whole, Google’s feature set is not nearly as extensive as Microsoft’s, and in some cases not even up to reasonable business standards (for example, Google Docs’ lack of any header or footer capabilities).

So, on the whole, Google’s applications are not ready to substitute for those provided by Microsoft Office. However, they do offer different benefits that, like Zoho’s, reflect the fact that they are Web-based: the ability to easily collaborate with other users and/or groups of users; the ability to access your documents no matter what computer you’re using; and the ability to quickly add interesting third-party applets. In addition, the mobile versions of Google’s apps are a real plus (although the fact that not all of Google’s applications sync to offline versions can be a problem).

While they may not be as sophisticated as those in most suites, these apps are not bad — and quickly getting better. If you’re a heavy user of online resources, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make the acquaintance of at least some of Google’s applications — there’s a good chance that they will be ready for the big time fairly soon.

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Profiting from Social Networking

October 29, 2007

By Maha Atal

Here are two potentially billion-dollar questions: How can you turn the Web’s social-network users into consumers? And how can you turn idle browsing into a flourishing bottom line? Back in May, marketers hoped they might have the answer when social-networking giant Facebook opened its network to external developers. This instantly allowed them potential direct access to a user group of millions who are notoriously unimpressed by traditional advertising methods. The only challenge: developing real-world applications that users might want to embed in their profiles, which would have a real-world effect beyond mere entertainment.

Three months later, it’s clear that there’s no foolproof formula for success. Companies categorize their own applications from a list of 22 options and, as such, “businesses” come from across the board. In fact, the most popular “business” listing is Total Sports Fan, a sports application run by Boris Silver, a Wharton School student who has no plans to exploit the app as a business. In fact, he says, he listed it in that category because “he just kind of wanted to.” This free-and-easy attitude is all part of the territory, and other, more serious-minded ventures need to not only understand this attitude but be willing to live with it.

Know Your Audience

Four of the most popular applications within the category include the virtual trading program Fantasy Stock Exchange, a recruitment specialist called Jobster Career Networking, an environmental activist app known as I am Green, and a person-to-person loan service called the Lending Club, which has what may be the most successful business model. Though they’ve attracted 174,000 users among them to date, capitalizing on those users is still a challenge. Here, we assess what they’re doing right, analyze what they could be doing better, and determine what their stories can teach other companies that want to enter the space.

First: This is Facebook, kids. 56.4% of users are under 35, according to ComScore. Applications need to be appropriate and relevant to that audience. Kevin Rablois, of Slide says there are two ways for a business application to grow: through exploiting its social side or by providing users with a means for self-expression.

The Fantasy Stock Exchange (FSX) application, sponsored by virtual stock trading site HedgeStop.com, is currently the second most popular business application, with 92,000 users signing up since its launch in early July. On the application, as on its mother site, users trade virtual money based on real-time figures provided by NYSE and NASDAQ. The application loads content directly from HedgeStop.com and the 18- to 35-year-old players using it represent a similar demographic to those already using the company’s core Web site.

Getting Beyond Marketing

HedgeStop.com hopes to earn money by selling banner advertising space on its application pages, promoting the idea that virtual traders can be real spenders. But since Chief Executive Daniel Carroll admits that targeted users are “mostly beginners” who don’t yet have real funds to trade, they are also unlikely to be big spenders. Not to mention that an old-fashioned ad business model rather misses the point of the forum. Young users are wary of potential manipulation, and may be turned off FSX altogether if advertising gets too intrusive. Finally, the application has yet to offer features unique to Facebook. There seems to be no reason users shouldn’t simply go right to HedgeStop.com.

It’s a common mistake, says Facebook Senior Platform Manager Dave Morin. According to him, too many companies still see applications as marketing rather than as new business. They bring users to an application either to advertise to them or to build a connection they hope will subsequently send users off Facebook and to their main business—a company Web site, say, or its online store. Instead, companies should be trying to make the application into a self-sustaining business that generates revenue through the service it provides on Facebook. “The applications that are the most successful are the ones that integrate seamlessly into Facebook,” Morin says, a model that conveniently supports Facebook’s own business ambitions.

A Business-to-Business Model

At the same time, most users expect Facebook to be entertaining and, well, free, so getting them to pay for an application directly is unlikely. Companies such as the career networking site Jobster.com are trying to get other businesses to pay for access to Facebook users.

On Jobster’s Facebook application, called Jobster Career Networking, users post résumés and declare career goals. Jobster then feeds those résumés to companies such as Nike, GE, and Merrill Lynch, which pay a $100 monthly premium fee to access résumés from Facebook. That’s in addition to the $300 they pay for résumés from the main Jobster.com database. It’s a premium they’re prepared to pay to access young workers with perhaps nontraditional backgrounds. “We aren’t after the companies that want a classic job board,” says Jobster’s Vice-President for Corporate Communications Christian Anderson. In its first month on Facebook, Jobster Career Networking moved 300 companies from regular to premium membership and brought in 50 new partners, generating several hundred thousand dollars in revenue, according to Jobster CEO Jason Goldberg.

Given that Facebook is a social network whose main function is entertainment, there’s a danger that job hunting may not be an activity users wish to load onto their profile, when they can do so just as well on Jobster.com or any other job search site. In fact, mixing business with pleasure is a concern for users who might not want their new boss hearing about their high jinks on vacation. This reality could provide a stumbling block for Jobster’s latest feature, which enables users to add endorsements from Facebook friends to their résumé cover letters.

Rablois is skeptical of Jobster’s plan. “Why would I want recommendations of my skills or a dedication posted along with drunken photographs?” he wonders. And won’t employers disregard friends’ recommendations as entirely, unashamedly biased?

Jobster’s Anderson says users have expressed the same concern. “We’ve really had to work to clarify that companies won’t see your profile, that you won’t be ‘friending’ companies.” Consequently, says Anderson, they won’t be able to judge the friends you cite as references; they’ll just know how many recommendations you have. But this means that Jobster Career Networking has to restrict its links to the social core of Facebook to function as a professional application. It’s a risky strategy. Given that the application adds little to users’ experience of Facebook, they might as well use Jobster.com or other recruitment sites. If users ultimately decide against linking their private and professional lives, companies will be quick to pull their support. For now, though, it’s paying off: 52,000 users have downloaded the application since late July.

Showing a Green Side

I am Green lets users list simple environmentally conscious choices they make in their daily lives on their public Facebook profiles. On the application’s main page, users can talk about green technology, organic produce, and environmental issues. Founder Karel Baloun plans to monetize his 27,494 users by selling advertising space and selling green products on manufacturers’ behalf. Baloun says he’ll avoid young users’ hostility to advertising by providing content only from the green companies they already like and discuss on the application page and by polling them about the brands they’d like to see involved.

Slide’s Rablois thinks this might work, because users committed to a niche cause might be eager to buy green products. Then again, potential sponsors might not pay much to participate in such a niche market. Like HedgeStop.com, Baloun is trying to bring an old media business model into a new media space.

Fees for Lending Service

The smallest of these four business applications may be the closest to developing the most appropriate business model. On Lending Club, a person-to-person lending company that launched via a Facebook application in May, the social component is at the center of its business model. Borrowers load the application to meet up with lenders from within their existing Facebook networks and social groups. They then negotiate rates directly. Once an agreement has been made, they head to LendingClub.com, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., to enter bank account details, so funds can be transferred directly between accounts. Lending Club takes a small cut, up to 3%, of each loan.

Says LendingClub CEO Renaud Laplanche, “Person-to-person lending works best in an a environment where people feel connected to one another, lending to friends and friends of friends.” He also claims that peers trust peers to give better rates than a bank. So far, the site has attracted 13,163 users. With its 3% transaction fees, Laplanche estimates that by the end of August, the company will have moved $1 million since its June launch. But the revenue for the company in the same three-month interval is only $30,000. Given the minimal costs of maintaining the Web site and its relatively small staff of 21 people, this may be enough for now, but as the application grows, its infrastructure costs will expand. Raising the company’s commission, however, would quickly jeopardize its value proposition to users.

Facebook, where users expect applications to augment their social experience with little effort and at no cost, may be a tough environment for companies whose ultimate goal is making a buck, especially since so many companies are still trying to work with traditional ad models. Ultimately, the most successful applications are those whose business model, brand identity, and natural users match the culture and demographic on the network. As such, the top applications may not provide plug-and-play solutions for every brand hoping to enter Facebook. But the lessons they teach about the need for authenticity and relevancy are universal tenets for marketers in the Web 2.0 age.

Source: BusinessWeek Online


Mailbag: Web-Based Appointment Scheduling

August 5, 2007

By Richard Morochove

This month I answer a reader’s question about Web-based scheduling services.

I am a social worker in a group private counseling practice. We track our billing using software that has a scheduling module built in, but we’ve never used it. It seems too clumsy, too difficult to customize around the personal schedules of nine therapists. We’ve stayed with paper appointment books. This works but is cumbersome, especially when someone calls in and asks, “When is my next appointment?” or when you have to flip through nine books to find the first opening someone has for an urgent caller.

Is there an intelligent way to evaluate appointment software, short of downloading trial versions for installation? We have been told the wave of the future is online, Web-based scheduling services that allow a prospective client to book an appointment at any time without a phone conversation.
–Terry Moore, Omaha, Nebraska

There are many different appointment scheduling applications, and there’s no easy way to evaluate their suitability for a given situation without using trial versions, as available.

Start by analyzing your business needs, as I outlined in an earlier column. That article was about choosing accounting software, but the same principles apply in your circumstances: First analyze your needs, then rate the capabilities of each application in that context.

Stand-Alone or Integrated?

The appointment schedulers I’ve seen built into financial management or billing applications never seem to be quite as good as the stand-alone programs. Of course, the downside of using a stand-alone appointment scheduler is the lack of integration with your billing app.

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Web-based business application services. They tend to be easier to set up than packaged applications that you install on your own PC, and they usually handle software updates and data backups automatically.

Web-based apps are also more likely to offer online self-service. Customers can access certain capabilities over the Internet, if you permit it.

Benefits of Client Self-Service

Allowing your clients to book their own appointments online delivers several benefits. It can increase client satisfaction since it lets them easily schedule an appointment based upon their top priority, whether that’s the earliest possible booking, the most convenient time, or seeing their favorite therapist. Clients can also cancel appointments or change times.

A Web-based service is available for your clients to use 24 hours a day since it does not depend upon someone answering your phone during business hours. This also relieves your staff of some tedious scheduling-related tasks.

You’ll still need someone to answer the phone to schedule appointments: Not every client will have Internet access, and some will not feel comfortable booking appointments online.

AppointmentQuest Web-based Scheduling Service

AppointmentQuest Online Appointment Manager is a highly capable Web-based appointment scheduler with client self-service capabilities. It offers six membership packages with varying features and capacities, priced at $7 per month and up.

You can try out AppointmentQuest by signing up for a free 30-day trial account. I found the application process easy, but setup proved time-consuming and somewhat problematic.

You must go through a multistep procedure to configure schedules, add personnel and locations, and more. I got lost somewhere in New Account Setup and couldn’t figure out how to resume the setup process.

I wound up stuck in Suspended Schedule Status. I knew–and the online help confirmed–that customers can book appointments only when the schedule status is Active. However, the online help did not explain how to change the status to Active. Online help that tells you what you already know isn’t very helpful.

I finally used a Web-based form to query support and was pleasantly surprised when, despite the stated 48-hour turnaround, I received a detailed e-mail response within a few minutes. I was then able to complete the setup.

Highly Customizable

Despite the setup glitch, I’m impressed by AppointmentQuest. It offers a wealth of scheduling capabilities. You can change the appointment interval, set an appointment lead-in or lead-out to add time between clients, and establish an appointment cancellation deadline. I think it would be simple to set different work hours (including split shifts), days off, and vacation days for each therapist.

You can customize the Web interface for both you and your clients, changing fonts and colors. You can add your business name, logo, and contact information. You can also modify appointment e-mail notification messages and policies for both clients and staff.

It’s easy to check availability, and you can activate the Online Appointment Scheduler for use by clients. There are several ways to link from your Web site to your appointment data, including options for both new and returning clients. The client interface is intuitive and easy to use.

Credit Card Billing

The AppointmentQuest package that appears most appropriate for your practice is Gold PRO, which handles an unlimited number of appointments for up to ten employees, for up to 24 months in advance.

E-mail appointment reminders can be sent to clients and therapists, as well as to an office administrator. Gold PRO supports both rescheduling and recurring appointments.

Appointment and contact information can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook or the Palm Desktop. You an also export data to a spreadsheet and prepare appointment books in PDF.

You could even opt for credit-card processing, which collects fees or deposits from clients when they make appointments. That feature requires a merchant account, and AppointmentQuest charges transaction-processing fees that vary depending upon the plan you select.

The Gold PRO package costs $100 per month. Discounts apply if you agree to a six-month or one-year contract. For your group, the cost for this plan would amount to about $11 per month per therapist. This sounds pretty affordable to me, though it does cost more than a paper appointment book. You’ll need to decide if the scheduling capabilities are worth it.

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Rave: A Gamer’s Look at Customer Relationship Management

June 18, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Customer relationship management can improve the way a business handles its dealings with prospects and customers. It helps a business keep the sales pipeline flowing to maintain a positive cash flow.

I’ve previously looked at 37signals’ Highrise, a simple Web-based CRM service, in an earlier column. Rave from Entellium offers a more feature-rich online CRM service than Highrise, though it’s pricier and requires more time to set up. Rave sports an interesting look and feel that’s inspired by what the company calls Gamer Influenced Design.

Rave’s lively “video game” look likely won’t appeal to the Willy Lomans in the sales force who still rely on their note-smudged index cards. Yet it could make light work of drudgery like entering contact details for younger sales staff who appreciate Rave’s bright colors and overall visual appeal. Priced at $400 per year per user, Rave offers reasonable value for a small to mid-sized business.

Rave’s Smart Client

Setting up Rave is a little more time consuming than using other online services that can be accessed using nothing more than a Web browser. In Rave’s case, you must first download and install Entellium’s proprietary client software on each PC that uses the service, then register for a Rave account.

Organizing a sales team is a little more complicated, but doesn’t require specialized IT support. Your sales manager can likely perform the customization and setup for other users in the business.

Once you log on to Rave, you’ll find plenty of online help available, including video tutorials. These aren’t structured as formal lessons, however. Rave is designed so that you can pick up tidbits of knowledge as you progress through the online application, a handy learn-as-you-go approach.

Rave makes liberal use of icons, such as star ratings for prospects, in place of text descriptions. Yet the user interface is not all play and no work. The payoff from installing Rave’s smart client becomes evident when you see how easy and time-saving it is to drag and drop information.

Online Service With Offline Option

Rave’s home page is like a dashboard that summarizes an individual’s sales activities, such as customer appointments, inbound and outbound phone calls, e-mails, tasks, and notes regarding contacts. Other main menu selections include the management of contacts, prospects, sales opportunities, activities, and reports.

Rave is designed to be used online; a broadband Internet connection is recommended for optimal performance. Entellium says its service provides 99.7 percent uptime. However, there’s also an offline mode that allows access to important data when you’re not online.

Furthermore, you are not limited to using only the data you enter while online. An import wizard steps you through the task of importing data from CSV and XML files. This can be useful for following up a list of trade show contacts, for example. You can also synchronize data with Microsoft Outlook.

Built-In Sales Activity Automation

Rave guides you through the process of turning a contact into a prospect with the aim of ultimately converting a sales opportunity to a customer. This guided process will assist most new and inexperienced sales staff, but the superfluous help may initially appear to be an albatross for the sales veteran.

Yet even the experienced salesperson can benefit from the automation of routine and repetitive tasks. Rave offers a number of built-in automation capabilities, many useful, others not so much. On one hand, you can easily schedule meetings and send e-mail newsletters to customers. On the other hand, consider the RSS Automator, which delivers newsfeeds with headlines relevant to your clients. I found most headlines irrelevant and saw the scrolling news links as more of a distraction than a selling aid. Thankfully, the RSS feed can be switched off.

Entellium plans to extend Rave’s utility by offering more integration with third-party apps and services from Google (AdWords and Maps) and Intuit (QuickBooks). I discussed Google AdWords in a previous column. Integration with AdWords can help determine which advertising keywords bring in the most customers.

Fresh Look at CRM

Rave is aimed at small to mid-sized businesses with 5 to 500 employees. Its engaging user interface offers a fresh look at CRM that will hold particular appeal to a younger sales force. Rave’s service costs $400 per year per user, though a free, limited capability, 30-day trial is available.

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