Web roundup: Feb 19, 2008

February 20, 2008

What’s going on around the internet world??? News and analyses from best and well-regard sources such as TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, etc.

Read the round up at www.unitedBIT.com

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Web Meeting Service Startup Takes On Cisco, Microsoft

November 21, 2007

Dimdim, a startup made up of entrepreneurs and technologists, on Monday launched a free Web meeting service that’s meant to compete with Cisco Systems’ WebEx and Microsoft’s PlaceWare. The service, also called Dimdim, will be showcased at this week’s DEMOfall 07 conference where new products, technologies, and companies make their debut. The free service is offered as a private beta for now, but will be widely available on registration basis in two to three months.

Dimdim is browser-based and doesn’t require any software to be installed, which makes it easy to use, said DD Ganguly, the company’s CEO and co-founder, in an interview. “A customer once told us: ‘This is just like visiting a web site.’ Anyone who can use a browser irrespective of technical ability can use Dimdim,” Ganguly said.

Dimdim uses a rich Internet application with advanced collaboration features. The service allows people to share their desktop files, show slides, and chat using a webcam. Cisco and Microsoft offer similar capabilities as part of their Web meeting services. Cisco acquired Web conferencing company WebEx earlier this year, with plans to integrate its own voice and video products into the WebEx offering.

CEO Ganguly said what makes Dimdim unique is its open source foundation. “We’re about democratizing collaboration,” Ganguly said.

The service integrates open source components, such as the Google Web toolkit for Ajax applications, the Red5 open source Flash server, and the Tomcat application server, with Dimdim’s open source software.

Additionally, it works on computers that run different operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux.

There are three versions of Dimdim available: a free browser-based version, open source server-side software that can be downloaded from Sourceforge.net, and an enterprise version that can be purchased for a fee by small and medium-sized businesses.

The enterprise version is customizable and scalable. For example, it allows hundreds of participants to be on a Web conference at the same time, whereas the free version doesn’t. Dimdim also offers 24/7 support for the enterprise version.

Schools and universities can integrate Dimdim’s server-side software with e-learning apps, while companies can integrate it with customer-relationship management (CRM) apps for a better collaboration experience, said Ganguly.

Dimdim is supported by venture funding from firms that also have invested in Skype, Hotmail, and MySQL. The investors include Draper Richards, Index Ventures, and Nexus India Capital.

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Eight Great, Simple Web Services for your Business

November 14, 2007

New services make it easy to customize the best of the Web’s content to your heart’s delight, or to meet the needs of your business.

You may not feel the urge to microblog your every thought using Twitter, and not every news story that tops the list at Digg.com adds value to your life. Fortunately, there are enough great Web innovations to please everybody. Free services from Google and other companies large and small mix and mash nicely, allowing you to get your business organized, share and synchronize calendars, or create special-purpose maps. You don’t even have to know what an API is (I’ll tell you anyway) or how to write JavaScript or XML (though you may want to learn). Naturally, Google isn’t the only game on the new Web–our favorite mashable services let you create custom news feeds, widgets, and other tools for applications, limited only by your imagination.

Mark Your Map With Google My Maps…

In just minutes you can add maps to your Web site that highlight all of your company’s locations, or create a map that shows your favorite roadside diners and cheap gas stations. Google Maps’ application programming interface (API) allows anyone to link text and images to any Google Maps location, but you can do the same thing without writing code or knowing anything about the API. Visit Google Maps, select the My Maps tab, and click Create new map. Navigate to the spot you want to annotate (zoom in if necessary), and click the blue "placemark" button to add a marker; drag the marker to set its location. Right-click the marker to change its title or enter a description. To insert a photo, choose Rich text, click the Insert Image icon on the far right, paste the image’s URL into the dialog box, and click Save. Choose Link to this page at the right of the Google Maps page to copy your map’s URL for sharing via e-mail….

Then Mash It Up With Other Content

Not content to limit your creativity to map markers, Google also lets you easily merge a select number of other people’s Google Map mashups–in the form of widget-like maplets–with your custom maps. To add a maplet, click one of the content items listed below your personal maps, such as GasBuddy.com‘s database of local gas prices, or Panoramio‘s collection of geolocated photos. Or click Add content to choose one of the dozens of other maplets available. By combining maplets with placemarks, you can create and share a map of your favorite locations along a particular route, annotate each with your own photos and text, and include other people’s photos too, as well as the cheapest gas along the way, for example. Or you might build a map of your burg that plots your most frequently visited destinations along various transit and bike routes. As Google adds more maplets, this feature will only become more useful.

Create a RSS

Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, is a great way to get your Web content read. Because nearly all browsers, e-mail programs, Web portals, and search engines support RSS, you can push your site’s offerings to readers who are interested in the subjects you cover.

An RSS feed is a text file that lists your site’s title and individual articles, along with the URLs. For simple sites, you could create this file by hand using a text editor and the RSS 2.0 specification. The RSS Board’s Web site provides an RSS playground where you can plug in feed values and variables to test your feed.

However, it’s much easier to use one of the many automatic RSS feed generators that "scrape" your site’s HTML tags for likely feed items and generate an XML file. Of the dozens of such services (most of which are free), start with FeedYes, which not only scrapes sites for feed content automatically but also helps you construct feeds manually. Once your feed is done, check it for errors at Feed Validator or use the RSS Board’s validator. When it’s ready, submit it for syndication with FeedBurner‘s free service. And while you’re at the FeedBurner site, consider letting the Google-owned service monetize your feed via Google’s AdSense program.

Filter Feeds Through Yahoo’s Pipes

News feeds help you stay current, but they’re time-consuming to read. If you’re looking for a needle in the RSS haystack, Yahoo’s powerful and free Pipes construction set enables you to pour feeds through dozens of prefabricated logic modules that search, modify, or analyze them and then pump the result through other modules and services to output the fine-tuned result. Popular pipes cough up the YouTube videos of the top ten songs on iTunes, deliver Flickr photos related to stories in the New York Times, and display the favorite photos of your Flickr contacts.

Building your own feed is a drag-and-drop affair. Click the Documentation link on the home page to reach a tutorial, online help, and sample pipes that show you how to mix and match modules.

To build a pipe, use your Yahoo ID to sign in at the Pipes home page, and click Create a pipe to open the Pipes editor. Select a module from the ‘User inputs’ or ‘Sources’ categories (such as Fetch Feed to add an RSS feed) on the left side of the editing screen, and drag it onto your page. Next, pick a module from ‘Operators’, ‘String’, or another data-manipulation category and drag it onto the page. Enter the necessary filtering information. Next, drag from the "port" on the bottom of the box to connect the output of the first module to the input of the second, and the output of the second to the input of the Pipe Output module at the bottom of the page.

When you’re done, click Save, and then Run Pipe to use your finished pipe. Finally, click Publish to share your pipe with the world. Depending on which modules you connected, your pipe might actually do something useful, such as find feeds on an arcane subject, though fine-tuning the output can be a lengthy process. By connecting several PCWorld.com news feeds to the ‘For Each: Replace’ module (which contains the Flickr source module), I built a pipe that illustrates what many of the products reported on look like, along with some occasionally unexpected results. I even managed to filter out duplicate images by introducing the ‘Unique’ module. The really ingenious pipes are much more complex, however.

Hitch Your Domain to Google Apps

Owning and operating a Web domain–not to mention setting up the e-mail servers, user accounts, and hosting–used to be a pricey affair. Not any longer.

If you already own a domain through another registrar, you can use it with Google Apps, which allows you to configure Gmail as the mail server for your domain, as well as to set up subdomains for use with other services, such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Calendar, and Page Creator. Go to the Google Apps page, click Get Started, choose Sign Up under Standard Edition, and either enter your existing domain name or purchase an available one for $10 a year through the registrar GoDaddy. Google Apps will then prompt you to create an administrator account for the new domain–and that’s it. You’ll see your Google Apps Dashboard page, where you create additional user accounts (up to 200) for your coworkers, family members, or other domain denizens, and configure chat, calendar sharing, and document settings, among other options. It doesn’t provide everything you need to get your organization online, but it is an excellent (and free) foundation for your group’s Web activities.

Sync Your Local Calendar With Google’s

Where would I be without my online calendar? My whole life is in there. Unfortunately, I’m often not in front of my computer when an appointment alarm goes off. That’s why Google Calendar and its SMS notifications are handy. I also like having my calendar available online so that family and collaborators can check my availability. If you work the same way, you can keep your local and Web calendars synchronized by using one of two tools. If you use Mozilla Thunderbird and its Lightning calendar extension, Provider for Google Calendar lets you create a new calendar in Lightning/Thunderbird that syncs with an existing Google Calendar. Outlook users should try Calgoo Software’s $25-per-year Calgoo Apps, which not only allow you to synchronize your Outlook and Google calendars and contacts but also give you access to your Google Calendar offline.

Pimp Your Facebook

Facebook is a handy, general-purpose place to connect with coworkers, neighbors, and friends, but its bio, photo, and messaging features are bare-bones. Fortunately, the service’s applications feature allows you to install widget-like programs into your profile that ramp up your ability to link with other Facebookers, and even stay productive while hobnobbing. To browse Facebook’s gallery of more than 1500 applications, click Applications, and then Browse More Applications. Select For Facebook at the right to see a more manageable list of categories, and skip the more frivolous ones. Some of my favorites include My Flickr, which displays your Flickr photos; Zoho Online Office, a link to your free Zoho office-suite account; and the My Company’s Hiring widget from LinkedIn.

Get Stylish

Bored with the look of your favorite sites? If you use Mozilla’s Firefox, you can spice things up, or chill them out, by installing the Stylish extension and downloading predesigned styles for individual sites and the browser itself. To install the extension, choose Tools, Add-ons, Get extensions. Search for Stylish at the Firefox Add-ons site. When you find it, click its link, and then the big, green Install Now button. Stylish will run the next time you launch Firefox, but it won’t do anything until you download and install styles from Userstyles.org. You can turn Google’s bright white background a cool dark blue, improve Wikipedia’s readability, or change the look of Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, and other sites. You’ll also find Stylish styles that alter the interfaces of Firefox and Thunderbird.

Make Your Own Widget

Nothing substitutes for programming expertise when it comes to crafting the handy mini-programs that run on your iGoogle page or through Yahoo’s Widgets. You’ll find excellent XML and JavaScript tutorials online, and in print at your local bookstore. Making a simple Google gadget, however, takes no programming skills at all.

Log in to iGoogle and click Create your own gadget at the bottom of the page. Pick one of the seven (as we went to press) gadget templates, and click its Get started link. After customizing it with online content, text, and other options, click Create Gadget. Google adds the gadget to your iGoogle page and offers options for sharing it. The WyaWorks Widget Creator service lets you create and share a database widget (think contacts or customer service) that works with iGoogle, Netvibes, and Pageflakes. Yahoo Widget builders can get help with XML widget coding via Harry Whitfield’s Widget Maker.

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LendingClub Moves From Facebook to Alums

October 31, 2007

by Kristen Nicole

LendingClub, the peer-to-peer lending service that took off on Facebook and recently announced its plans to expand, is doing so with partnerships with 10 alumni associations across the country.

This is set up in a similar manner to how the Facebook app worked, enabling alumni to lend and borrow money from each other. In establishing these new lending tools, LendingClub has set up co-branded communities with several alumni associations including Georgia Tech, Kansas Sate and my own alma mater, University of Michigan.

This is a unique method of expansion for LendingClub, which announced a round of funding for $10.26 million in August. What it’s doing is offering custom communities for existing organizations, which automatically harbors a level of trust tat would otherwise be absent.

Just like visiting the classifieds site set up for your college, you know that you’re more likely to deal with people that are trustworthy than going to a third-party classifieds site. Dealing with these LendingClub communities isn’t exactly like the classifieds example, because after college we all have a tendency to disperse, so it’s not as if you can drive across campus to pick up the new futon you bought from a Senior. But you get the point.

This route for expansion plays nicely with its initial tactic on Facebook. Growth in the peer- and micro-lending spaces has continued even in the past week, with eBay’s MicroPlace and Zopa’s new Listings section.

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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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NetSuite Beefs Up E-Commerce Services

January 16, 2007

By Richard Morochove

One of the difficulties that any small e-commerce business faces is integrating the flow of information to and from its Web site, which is typically hosted by a service, and its accounting software, which usually resides on a local PC or server. You can periodically upload new inventory data and download new sales data to keep things in sync, but that approach doesn’t work as seamlessly and efficiently as it should.

One solution is NetSuite, a venerable online service that handles business accounting and financial management and can also host a financially integrated e-commerce Web site. While NetSuite boasts impressive accounting capabilities, until now it did not offer much flexibility for handling high-end e-commerce needs.

The latest round of improvements to NetSuite significantly enhances its Web site creation and management capabilities. I looked at a beta version of NetSuite version 11, which adds feature after valuable feature for e-commerce businesses, particularly those that sell through different channels, such as retail and wholesale, and those that target international markets.

However, these improvements come at a cost. Feature-rich NetSuite isn’t designed for a budding business on a tight budget. You will spend $1100 per month or more to gain access to the broad range of services that it offers.

Multiple Sites Supported

NetSuite now lets you manage multiple e-commerce Web sites, each with its own domain if necessary. Each site is capable of providing multilingual product descriptions and handling payments in multiple currencies: For example, a site visitor from the United States could read product descriptions written in English and price them in U.S. dollars, while a visitor from France can click on a menu and choose to view descriptions in French and prices in euros. You can establish one site to target consumers, while another aims at wholesale dealers with lower prices and higher minimum purchase requirements. All sites can draw from the same product inventory data.

Every e-commerce app can show you what you sold, but NetSuite now lets you see what you almost sold. NetSuite tracks shopping cart abandonments, so that you can view what products shoppers selected but ultimately opted not to buy. You can then try to capture this lost business by offering the shoppers a special coupon or another incentive.

If you’re a budding Amazon.com, you can use some of the same tools as the big guys to boost sales, such as the automated upsell/cross-sell that recommends related products and ones that previous buyers have purchased.

NetSuite now supports digital downloads for electronic products, a useful feature for sellers of e-books, software, and digital music.

E-commerce sites are often heavily dependent on visitors referred by major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. NetSuite tracks which search terms are most productive in attracting both visitors and sales. The reports can distinguish between the results from free, natural (sometime called “organic”) search referrals and pay-per-click search engine ads, which cost you money.

From NetLedger to NetSuite

NetSuite is now almost unrecognizable from the original service launched years ago, when it was called NetLedger and was marketed as a $10-per-user-per-month basic online alternative to Intuit’s QuickBooks. NetSuite has moved so far upscale that there’s little overlap between their markets now. Today’s NetSuite might appeal to QuickBooks users at the very high end, who are probably running QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions.

NetSuite’s new international e-commerce and Web site creation and management services are currently in beta testing and should be available to NetSuite users in the second quarter of this year.

NetSuite’s base price is $499 per month for a single user. Additional users cost $99 per month. The Site Builder and Site Analytics services cost an additional $299 per month each, regardless of the number of users. That sounds like a lot of money, but it includes accounting and finance functions, Web site hosting, and other capabilities such as calendar and task management. A free trial is available.

NetSuite is overkill for a mom-and-pop operation selling a couple of thousand dollars worth of merchandise per month. However, if you sell at least $20,000 per month and are looking for a platform that would support your business revenue growth to $200,000 or $2 million per month or more, then NetSuite could be just the e-ticket.

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Microsoft Office Live Puts Your Business Online

January 8, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Microsoft’s Office Live offers a mix of services for the small business looking to establish an online presence. In addition to Web site and e-mail account management, some editions of Office Live also deliver business services such as contact and time management, and facilitate sharing documents with customers.

Office Live is now a commercial product for U.S.-based users, following a prolonged beta test phase. But while Microsoft’s offering is a good first attempt to better serve the online needs of small businesses, it has a few rough edges.

Limited Design Options

Office Live will appeal most to small businesses that do not have a Web site and want to establish and manage one. The design templates make it easy for neophytes to create and modify their own Web pages. Some interactive Web components, such as a forms submitter and a site search engine, are also included.

Unfortunately, I found the service’s Web Designer to be somewhat unreliable. It didn’t always save my changes when I moved to another page, even after saying it had. And a professional Web site designer would chafe at the limited template options available. Office Live’s Web Designer is far less capable than Microsoft’s FrontPage application, which has been discontinued.

Office Live’s services aren’t especially unique. You can get most of them, such as Web and e-mail hosting, elsewhere. However, Office Live’s suite of services does make an attractive bundle. The services are generally well-integrated, with the notable exception of adManager, an advertising service for promoting your Web site.

To use adManager, you must create a separate account and go through a sign-on procedure from within Office Live. It’s as though adManager doesn’t trust Office Live users, which is tantamount to Microsoft’s right hand being wary of shaking its left. Unlike Office Live, adManager is still a beta service. Presumably, Microsoft will eliminate these clumsy procedures when adManager graduates from beta testing. I plan to review the service at that time.

Three Versions, One Free

Office Live comes in three editions.

The free advertising-supported Office Live Basics provides a domain name along with Web site storage that can hold up to 500MB of data and e-mail management for up to 25 accounts with 2GB of storage each.

Office Live Essentials ($20 per month) boosts Web site storage to 1GB, allows 50 e-mail accounts, and adds online business contact management and workspaces where you can share information, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, with your customers. This edition lets you import HTML files–perhaps from an existing Web site–and use more sophisticated third-party Web design tools, which are not included. You can also access e-mail and synchronize your contacts online with Microsoft Outlook on your PC.

Office Live Premium ($40 per month) increases Web site storage to 2GB and adds more business applications to help you manage customers, employees, and projects. You can also use Office Accounting 2007 Express (a separate free download) to manage this business information offline and share it with your accountant.

The free Office Live Basics sounds tempting, but only a stingy business owner would permit Microsoft-supplied advertisements, possibly from competitors, to run on the company’s Web site. Basics could work for personal Web sites; but for businesses it’s really a come-on to promote Essentials, which offers good value for the money. As for Live Premium, I’m not persuaded that it delivers sufficient value to justify the extra 20 bucks a month.

Microsoft’s Office Live paid versions offer free 30-day trials, so you can evaluate the services before you commit.

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