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JotSpot Born Again as Google Sites, the Wiki-less Wiki.

Three weeks ago I speculated that JotSpot, the user-friendly wiki swallowed by Google a year and a half ago would soon come out of hibernation, and Voila! here it is, rebranded as Google Sites. It is the first service only available as part of Google Apps (including the free version), although I had some difficulty accessing it. Under “Manage this Domain” I could add “Sites” as a new service, but it did not show up on my account as an accessible application. When I typed sites.google.com it wanted me to sign up for Google Apps even though I was already logged in to my account. Of course trying to do so resulted in the error message:

Google Apps for zoliblog.com has already been registered by your domain administrator. Please contact your admin directly to get access to Google Apps services.

Catch 22. But there’s a solution: just type the direct URL (sites.google.com/a/yourdomain.com as default, or customize it to your liking) and you can get into Sites. I’m sure Google will soon add it to the Apps menu. (Sidenote: my old JotSpot account is still alive at name.jot.com).

Google no longer calls this a wiki, which I think is a good move. I previously wrote:

Wikis have arrived when …you don’t even have to know what they are to use one. You don’t have to know you’re using a wiki, just happily type away, creating shareable content on the Web.

I was discussing Wetpaint, the user friendly, wiki-less wiki there, and I think it’s smart of Google to follow that pattern… more later, but first, under the hood it is still a wiki, so let’s examine some of the wiki basics.

The interface is familiar from good old JotSpot (as a sidenote, the old JotSpot accounts are still alive at name.jot.com). There’s a basic wysiwyg editor, the Edit button is large and visible, and so is the New Page button. Good old JotSpot had several more ways of creating new pages, which are gone – perhaps for the best:

  • WikiWords or CamelCase: in old JotSpot anything you typed with embedded capitalization became a link to a page. As a relatively early wiki-user I liked it, as the easiest way to LinkAsYouThink. But in the Web 2.0 age we keep on bastardizing grammar writing EveryThingLikeThis, so more and more WikiWords had to be “unlinked”… too much confusion, especially for the new generation of mainstream users.
  • Linking to a shell-page before it’s created. This was a useful feature, even if we eliminate camelcase, I could use the “Link” icon, and mark up text as a link to a new sub-page, to be filled with content later. Again, this supports flow-thinking, or LinkAsYouThink, which I regret is gone.
  • The “New Page” button. This is the only remaining option in Google Sites, and I think the fact that it offers to pick a parent page (enforced hierarchy) is an improvement. No more orphan pages, yet relatively flexible hierarchy.

For those not too familiar with wiki terms, I discuss some of these concepts in more detail here: technically an article on SocialText 2.0, but I often make comparisons to JotSpot and Atlassian’s Confluence.

I’m glad to see Sites retained breadcrumbs for easier navigation, and they added sitemaps, a tree-style view of all your pages. This could be improved to allow for drag-and-drop style moving of the pages (changing the hierarchy), like Zoho Wiki does.

I’m surprised Sites still does not have inbound links: this is a critical feature for all wikis, whatever we call them. A wiki is all about associating pieces of information with each other, and the inbound link, also referred to as backlink shows you where the information on the current page is used elsewhere. The JotSpot tea half-recognized the importance of backlinks, as they were available as as a downloadable plugin on the Jot Development wiki, but never made it to the standard feature-set, and are apparently lost in the Google reincarnation, at least for now.

Attachment handling is as good as it was in the original JotSpot: it maintains previous versions, allows users to revert to earlier ones…etc. However, Google missed a huge chance here to by not offering to convert the attached documents to its own Google Docs style. This point takes us to the next level: stepping outside the boundaries of a standalone wiki and using it as a facility to pull together data created by other applications.

Last year I said after burying JotSpot for a year, Google can’t just release it as a wiki, instead:

…I hope that means they rethought everything and integrated JotSpot well into a number of offerings.

  • It could provide for much better document management than the current Docs &­ Spreadsheets UI.
  • It overlaps with Page Creator, also with the simplified version found in Google Groups – in fact Groups which is no longer just email lists but a rudimentary collaboration platform and JotSpot could very well be merged / integrated.
  • Finally JotSpot tried to provide primitive applications (spreadsheet, calendar..etc) all of which have a better Google counterpart, so one would hope they will be replaced, too.

Well, what’s the score on that prediction? Google Sites is a better replacement for Page Creator, Google ditched the JotSpot “apps”, replacing them with their own ones – so far 2 scores out of 3. As for document management.. well, I’d say half a score, or less. (Hey, that’s 2.5 out of 3smile_tongue)

You can somewhat integrate Google Docs (which includes documents, spreadsheets and presentations) by embedding them into any Google Sites page. You have to enter the specific URL though – why not just select from a list? Furthermore, your Google docs or spreadsheets have to be first made public and you have to use the public URL to embed them into Sites. Here’s my test site, showing first an error message, then the actual embedded spreadsheet, after I made it public.

The embedded docs appear properly in the saved page, but I can’t click on it, not even in Edit mode to get to the source. In fact in Edit mode all I see is a graphical placeholder for the embedded doc.

How about sharing / collaboration? As expected, your Sites can be:

  • private
  • public
  • shared with individual email id’s
  • shared with everyone within your domain

…and you can set view or edit options for all those levels. However, Google missed a big chance again. As a complete coincidence, it’s only yesterday that I raved about Zoho’s Group level sharing, half-announced in a fairly understated manner – hidden in a list of Zoho Writer enhancements. Well, Google already has a very good group facility: Google Groups, which started it’s life as a group discussion / forum system, but it gradually evolved into a decent collaboration platform. Once I have a “group” defined (i.e. the list of members), why doesn’t it become an entity I can share my wiki (sites) or docs with? When I invite users to share the wiki with, there’s an option to save the list as group, but I don’t know where it disappears, can not pull it up either within the wiki or gmail, or docs.

Finally there are gadgets, but if you read Dennis Howlett at ZDNet, gadgets might the feature you don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. smile_sad

Summary: Nice to have Jot back (even if we did not get GSpot.smile_embaressed ) Google now has a pretty good and easy web-page creator with some wiki features made user-friendly, and a half-hearted attempt at integrating the rest of the Apps empire using Sites. Perhaps they get it right in the next release.

Related posts: TechCrunch, eWeek, Ross Mayfield’s Weblog, Irregular Enterprise, Mashable!, InfoWorld, Between the Lines, Portals and KM, CNet, Webware, GigaOM, Web Worker Daily, Venture Chronicles, Insider Chatter, Learning and Technology, Solo Technology.

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Zoho Expands Group Collaboration

Today’s Zoho Writer update is not what it looks like. Yes, I get the story about:

  • DocX Support
  • Thesaurus (in 10 languages)
  • Enhanced Endnotes/Footnotes
  • Enhanced Headers/Footers

..etc, but that’s not what I find exciting. DocX support? Personally, I don’t care, MS Office 2003 was the last version I bought, people much smarter than me call it a completely insane format … but hey, the Borg is the market leader, so why not support it… Layout improvements? I’m already in a paperless world, barely ever print, so I don’t really care about these features. But Microsoft Office was created at a time when the purpose of document creation was to eventually print it, and in our legacy world the challenger is measured against the standards of the incumbent, so, yes, I can accept these are important features for Writer. Besides, the academic / student community has been dying for endnotes / footnotes, so now they can have it. smile_shades

But the hidden bomb here isn’t just a Writer improvement: it’s a feature that shows Zoho’s hands regarding collaboration in the entire Zoho Business Suite. Yes, I am talking about Group Sharing. After all, one of the key drivers behind moving to web-based Office applications is to enable easier collaboration.

Most of the collaborative apps, including Zoho or mighty Google typically allow either public sharing, or inviting users individually, but until now there has been no way to share your documents with a predefined set of users, i.e. members of a group. A year and a half ago I praised Google Groups for stepping out of being just a group email mechanism, becoming a mini community/collaborative platform – but the definition of a “group”, i.e.it’s members does not exist outside the Groups application, I can’t share Google Docs or Spreadsheets with my Group. (And make no mistake it’s been the same with Zoho until now.)

With today’s update you can now create a Group in the ‘My Account‘ section of Zoho, and that Group is recognizable in any other Zoho Application, including Writer, Sheet or even Zoho Mail. Eventually there will be multiple privacy / sharing levels within the Zoho Universe:

  • private
  • shared with individual email id’s
  • shared with Groups (defined once, recognized in all apps)
  • shared by Domain (i.e. share info within your business)

The last one will be a feature of Zoho Business, currently in private Beta, but the other two are available. Thesaurus in 10 languages, format and layout improvements are all nice, but the real news of the day is the improved cross-application collaboration.

Related posts: TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, Wired, Digital Inspiration, Zoho Blogs.

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Google Reader Offline: Smart Yet Dumb

Yes, it’s great to be able to download my feed items and read it on the plane without Internet connection (since I am not flying Virgin). I even “starred” some entries I want to respond to.But why can’t I mark items “read”? It’s an “online only” action – that does not make sense. When I go back online, Google Reader will perform synchronization anyway; why could it not remember “read” status and sync it?

The above rant is half a year old. I typed it up and decided not to post it. Now I am finding myself offline for a few days again, and can’t believe Google still hasn’t fixed this shortcoming.

Why is it a big deal? If you have hundreds of items in your Reader, I seriously doubt you will use Expanded View and scroll through everything. I found the only way to stay productive with Reader is to use List View, scan titles (OK, a combination of titles and author), and when all done, click “Mark all as read”. I don’t want to reprocess the same items again and again.

The error message says I can do this once I am connected again. But it’s too late, by then my Reader list will be a mix of already seen and new items. In other words, I am scr***d.

What really baffles me though is that I haven’t found any references to this problem online. Am I the only one finding this a major productivity killer? smile_sad

Update (3/14): Now that ReadBurner, a cool tool to determine the most shared items in Google Reader became the news du jur, let me just point out that you can’t mark an item ‘shared’ while offline, either. Not as frustrating as losing “read”status, just an annoyance. Google, please fix Reader!

Related posts: Unofficial ReadBurner, louisgray.com, Adam Ostrow, CenterNetworks and SheGeeks

Update (12/21/08)Google Reader Seems Buggy as Heck

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NetBooks: Integrated SaaS Suite for Very Small Businesses. Almost.

When I started this post 2 months ago, it had a more tongue-in-cheek working title: NetBooks – the Little Gem in Hiding – clearly a play on Dennis Howlett’s  post, NetBooks – a little gem.  That’s because despite Dennis’s positive review of this new SaaS solution for small businesses I found their website a major turn-off .   I did not find a feature-list, screen prints, demos: the closest they had was a contact form to request a scheduled demo.  Failure!  You can’t reach the “long tail” of the market via outbound sales; your site needs to be absolutely transparent, so potential customers can find all feature / price information at their fingertips, then just try-and-buy. 

But what a difference a few weeks make!  Having checked back, now NetBooks offers decent product information, online videos, in fact you can now set up a free trial account with sample data in minutes.  (While it looks like just another contact form, the process is automated, I received my email confirmation within a minute.) Self-navigation definitely beats just watching vid’s. Kudos to NetBooks for fixing a major shortcoming so fast!  (Note to self: don’t leave half-written posts, they may have a short shelf-life…)

Let’s look at the actual system now.  NetBooks aims to be an On-Demand integrated business management solution for small manufacturing businesses – in fact for other types of businesses, too, as long as they hold inventory and ship tangible products.  They cater for  what they call True Small Businesses (TSB), which I referred to as  VSB – very small businesses, the “S” in SMB / SME.  Typically companies with less then 25 employees, sometimes only 3-5, and, most importantly, without professional IT support, hence Software as a Service is a life-saver.

NetBooks tries to cover a complete business cycle, from opportunity through sales, manufacturing, inventory / warehouse management, shipping, billing, accounting – some with more success then others.  Manufacturing, Inventory, Shipping and their integration to Accounting appear to be a stronghold.  If you’re in sales, you’d like to see a Sales Catalog, if you’re in the warehouse, you want an Inventory List, and if you are in manufacturing, you need a Production Elements list: they are all one and the same, allowing you to define a product structure (Bill of Materials, BOM) with different physical characteristics, reorder points, pricing levels, warehousing requirements, marketing notes…etc.   In other words, different functions can update their own slice of the same information and it’s shared with others (of course in a small business several of these functions may very well be carried out by the same person.)

Not having any procurement / purchasing functions appears to be a glaring omission: after all, if you’re in manufacturing, you will likely need to buy some components / materials. 

Another function, nominally present, but rather weak is CRM.  I can set up a Revenue Opportunity list, track contacts, events, even financial terms per record, but what’s the point if I can’t turn these into a Quote, later a Sales Order?  In fact I have to start a sales order from scratch, and it does not update the opportunities: unless you close them out, they will show as prospects long after you shipped the order, invoiced the customer and received payment.

Sales Order creation appears to be  a watershed event in NetBooks: that’s when the system comes alive, integration gets better from here, with information flowing through nicely.  Completing the order creates a shipping document, confirmation of the shipment creates a a billing request, invoice.  Even external services are integrated well, like UPS for Online Shipping and PayCycle for payroll .  There’s a complete “document trail”, you can start from the accounting side, too: from Accounts Payable (invoice) you can trace all actions back to the shipping doc, sales order…etc.

I understand why Dennis with his accounting background considered this system a gem:

As an accountant by training I often make the mistake of taking the number cruncher’s view. On this occasion I don’t have to. The way NetBooks is organized, you enter it according to the role you fulfill. That means you only ever need use the screens that are pertinent to you.

Real-world people record their real-world transactions: manufacturing, physical movement of goods, and the system records the facts in Accounting.  NetBooks  is an accounting system at it’s heart, but one without the need to deal with accounting screens.  This should not come as a surprise, given Founder Ridgley Evers’s own background: he was co-founder at QuickBooks, the de facto standard for small businesses.

Most of the sample data in the NetBooks trial system appear to have come from Evers’s real-life business: Davero Ingredienti, a purveyor of olive oil products, and I think this very well represents the type of small business NetBooks may be ideal for: relatively stable, has a good repeat customer base, receives a  lot of inbound orders and needs to execute on manufacturing and shipping to these customers.  It badly lacks stronger Sales features, and a more flow-oriented thinking to support aggressively growing businesses.

The User Interface is nothing to call home about. You certainly won’t find the lively charts and dashboards seen at Salesforce.com, NetSuite, SugarCRM, Zoho CRM …etc.  But having a simplistic UI is one thing, making it outright boring is another, and hard to use is a capital crime.  In NetBooks you basically navigate through small text lists, then double -click on an item to drill down to more details, wait long (the system, at least the trial one feels very slow) for several overlapping screens to pop up. You have to close or move around some of these pop-ups to see what’s underneath.  And whoever came up with the idea of clicking on those tiny arrows should be banned from web design for life.  

 

Seriously, this isn’t just the lack of rounded-corners-gradient-colors web 2.0 goodness: the poor UI, the microscopic arrows to click on render NetBooks a pain to use. 

Although I’ve been quite critical in this review, I still like the NetBooks concept: give very small businesses an integrated system they previously could not afford. NetBooks starts at $200/month for 5 users, additional users seats are $20.  That’s a fraction of the current “gold standard” in the space, NetSuite – although the step up to NetSuite also brings a wealth of new functionality.  Finally, SAP’s Business ByDesign is worth mentioning: when it becomes widely available, it will be the most function-rich SMB SaaS solution – but their entry point is about where NetBooks’s upper limit is.

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Stupid Website Driving Customers Away

Sterling Vineyards is one of my favorite destinations in the Napa Valley, and it’s not about the wine.

It’s a pristine setting: interesting architecture nestled in the mountains, aerial tram ride to the top, beautiful views of the Napa Valley all make it a desirable tourist destination on its own. You can easily spend an entire lazy day there. Oh, yes, they make good wine, but it’s kind of secondary (well, to mesmile_tongue).

This being another gorgeous sunny weekend, visitors might want to check Sterling’s website for opening hours and other details. Of course the site promotes wines, but it’s not an e-commerce site, you can not order anything directly.

So why on earth do they feel the need to put up obstacles discouraging visitors from entering their website? You can’t enter without filling out the form below. What kind of bogus “protection” is this?

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Google’s Darth Vader Phone

Probably a joke but there’s a mockup of what a Google – Alienware (owned by Dell) phone would look like. Personally, I find it ugly.  Perhaps if they bundle it with a light saber?

 

More on: CrunchGear, Engadget, Gizmodo, Gadgetell, Technology Questions, PalmAddicts and Mobility Site

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You Can’t Compare Technorati to Amazon

It’s rare that I get into a public debate with a fellow Enterprise Irregular, but today is the day:

Michael Krigsman at ZDNet’s Project Failures cites the stellar response by Technorati as exemplary customer communication at a time of system failure that Amazon should learn from.

True, Amazon did not shine (that’s an understatement) when S3 went down earlier today. I’m sure Amazon will work on not only improving infrastructure, but communication – like Salesforce.com did after their major outage, establishing an Health Monitor, reminds us Lassy Dignan at ZDNet.

True, Technorati was exceptionally forthcoming in that particular incident – but the emphasis is on exceptionally, which is why I would not set them as role model for quite a while. Infrastructure problems have been the constant state of affairs for Technorati for years, the Technorati Monster is still at large, and most of these problems have been swiped under the carpet. In fact when they recently removed old posts from their online index without any notification, they explicitly stated they hoped most users wouldn’t notice.

I salute Technorati on their new approach to transparency, if it holds – but they are very, very far from being a role model.smile_sad

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The Dawn of SaaS-on-SaaS – Even While Amazon S3 is Down.

TechMeme is great in threading together relevant posts, but is largely based (so I think…) on direct linking, so of course it could not auto-detect the ironic relationship between:

Phil quotes Greg Olsen, CTO of Coghead, a web-based development platform which moved its servers to the Amazon infrastructure recently:

“As ironic as it may be, we continue to see software applications deployed as a service but which fail to use any service-based infrastructure themselves”

“The move to SaaS applications built on SaaS is a much more profound shift than the move from on-premise applications to SaaS applications …”

“Ironically, some of the first victims of this new economy may be some pioneers of the software-as-a-service movement. Today, many established SaaS application providers are applying much more of their precious focus and capital to infrastructure issues than newer competitors that are aggressively utilizing service-based infrastructure … the build-it-all-ourselves SaaS application vendor … will ultimately end up as [an] anachronism.”

Today’s Amazon outage appears to rebuff Phil and Greg’s point. Reality check: this is the first time Amazon S3 went down, and it’s already back up. Salesforce.com had its fair share of outages, so did other SaaS providers, and so did just about any in-house systems companies run their own installed software on. I’m a big believer in focus, specialization and I trust the few mega-cloud companies that will emerge can maintain a more robust infrastructure than we could all do individually. (So yes, if it’s not obvious, I do buy into Nick Carr’s Big Switch concept.)

Another approach is to look at where value can be added: the consensus view from a quick Enterprise Irregulars chat is that infrastructure will be commoditized faster (or it already is) than software, where there is a lot more room for innovation by new and – thanks to outsourced infrastructure – smaller players.

And if acronyms were not ugly enough already, here’s to entering the age of SaaS-on-SaaS. smile_shades

Update: What better confirmation of my point than today’s rumors about EMC hosting  SAP’s system  – I assume it’s Business ByDesign, the new On-Demand offering for the SMB market. (Side-note: I’ll be traveling and be time and Internet-challenged for the next three weeks, but SAP’s BDD is one of the subjects I will come back, as it seems to be largely misunderstood. Oh, and I just love the fact how Mozy, my favorite online backup service is often referred to in the EMC story).

 

Related posts (on the Amazon outage): Rough Type, mathewingram.com/work, LinkFog, Data Center Knowledge, Web Worker Daily, TechCrunch, Moonwatcher, Project Failures, SmoothSpan Blog, Enterprise Anti-Matter.

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MyBlogLog Blew Up Again

This was supposed to be a good day for MyBlogLog: they released a shiny new widget. Not that they announced it.. so let’s start the conspiracy theories:

  • they knew it didn’t work, so wanted to keep it secret
  • everyone still left in Yahoo is busy interviewing elsewhere
  • insert your ownsmile_wink

The reason I discovered the new widget was un unrelated (?) glitch: all of a sudden it does not know me. It’s not a cookie/browser issue, last time it happened was around the conversion to Yahoo logins, and they said it was account-related. (see Tired of Repeatedly Signing in to Mybloglog). Of course I started to search for similar problems and found a user talking about the new widget. Congrat’s, a well-kept secret!

OK, let’s install the new goodie. Oops, I hate the color choices and they won’t let me customize them…. oh, well.. go ahead anyway. Blog comes up blank. Again. Again. Hm… as it turns out, the MyBlogLog Widget can’t hold the new script. I’m not kidding, save it, come back and see it all blank.

There’s of course a simple solution: forget the plugin, just open up a new text widget and copy the script there. Voila! Here’s the new, shiny-yet-ugly widget.

Except it (widget and site) still does not remember who I am. And I refuse to login every single time.smile_angry

Update: Webgrrl can’t install it, either. Well, here’s your fix!

Update: the widget code is now fixed.

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EchoSign 3.0 Released – the Complexity Dilemma

Echosign, the leading Web-based document e-signature / distribution / management provider has just released version 3.0, with major updates.

The UI got significantly revamped, there are new subscription levels to manage up to thousands of documents, new forms were introduced, but the most important change per CEO Jason Lemkin is the introduction of complex workflows – a definite need for large corporations:

Hundreds of new workflow options have been added to EchoSign. The first group has been automatically added to the Account tab for Team and Enterprise customers. Want to sign ‘packs’ of documents? No problem. Routed signed copies of every contract in your company to a global e-mail address? Just tell us where. Collect title, company name? Whatever you want. Select who can — and cannot — sign in your company? Done, with one click.

And for the most complex workflows, EchoSign now offers a novel “Signature Workflow Language” where Enterprise customers can craft their own custom document worfklows. Want (A) your customer to fax sign your contract, (B) auto cc your sales rep, (C) autoroute to legal for electronic counter-signing, (D) but only by certain authorized signers, and then (E) have signed copies automatically sent back to the (F) customer, (G) legal, (H) sales ops, (I) accounting and (J) the sales rep? Now, no problem. Contact your account manager for access here and configuring workflow options beyond those you can set yourself on the Account tab.”

Let’s stop for a minute here: complexity is typically the last thing a software CEO would point out in his announcement, but Jason handles it with class and humor, for good reason. The illustration he picked (how did he find this gem?) shows a decidedly simple “process” made awfully complex by introducing far too many steps and “technology” prone to failure. EchoSign, on the other hand has earned a reputation of simplifying processes originally made complex by people, rules and lack of technology. I trust Jason and team – they will likely manage to reduce complexity, even while embracing it.

By the way, EchoSign is not only for large corporations, it’s for businesses of any size. I’m a one-person shop, and used it a few times. Even now as I type this post in Zoho Writer, I could just click on DigiSign (see highlight below) and have it routed to Jason to sign off. Not that I need to, after all, that would be …complexity. smile_eyeroll