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Google Releases Zoho Mail with Offline Support

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Yes, you read it right: the first announcement of Zoho Mail’s general availability, with Google Gears-based offline support did not come from Zoho, but from the Google Gears team, which released this video discussing Zoho’a use of Google Gears, synchronization, the Marketplace and  a lot more a bit prematurely:

Somewhat used to it (see TechCrunch Releases New Zoho Service: Invoice) the Zoho folks decided to play along and released their own announcement.

This announcement somewhat symbolizes the interesting dynamics between Zoho and Google: competitors, yet collaborators.   ReadWriteWeb is probably right:

But also Google probably sees Zoho less as a competitor at this point (even though Zoho does compete directly against Google Apps) and more as an evangelist for its technology – such as Google Gears.

First of all what’s in today’s announcement:

  • Zoho Mail has been in private beta for over a year now. As much as we like to switch to native collaboration using web-based tools, email is still where most productivity workers spend 80+% of their time.  Mail is the glue that brings it all together – so it’s important for Zoho to step out of background testing mode and make Mail publicly available. It’s also an integral part of the Zoho Business Suite.
  • Features: It’s an email service (everyone gets a user@zoho.com email account) and an email program that can consolidate several other email accounts, Outlook-style.  It combines old and new: supports hierarchical folders a’la Outlook as well as Gmail-style labels, chronological view as well as the threaded conversation views made popular by Gmail.
  • Access anywhere, any time: Offline access is provided via Google Gears (for now Firefox and IE only), and it’s also available on the iPhone.
  • Integrated Chat – this is another “glue” application within the Zoho Suite, and several other features listed here.

So with all that, why am I unhappy?  I’m a die-hard Gmail fan, mostly for its productivity boosting features:

  • Conversation threads
  • Labels
  • Search

Zoho Mail handles the latter two well, but I am not too happy with the way conversation threading works.  My business conversations last weeks, include dozens of emails, and on a traditional mail system the threads are basically a pain to put together before responding to someone.  Gmail handles it automagically, and as a side-effect, it presents a lot more information on it’s list screen – since the dozen individual emails are now compressed into one line.

But we all have different usage patterns. When debating the importance of threads, I looked at other Zoho Mail users whose conversations are typically one-off, so they won’t value threading feature at all.  In fact not everyone needs productivity.  Not everyone wants to go through a paradigm change.

AOL, YAHOO, Hotmail are the absolute web-mail market leaders,and they should do whatever it takes to keep their customers.  Their mainstream users are corporate employees who use Outlook in the Office, whether they like it or not is irrelevant, they are used to it. When they go home, they may not email a lot. Some will check their emails daily, once a week, or less. They want a personal email that resembles to what they already know.  For them familiarity is more important than productivity.

As much as I hate to admit it,  I am NOT the mainstream Zoho customer.  I am probably more a part of the TechCrunch 53,651 (even though it’s 1M now) than the mainstream customer base Zoho targets.   And if it wasn’t clear before, the current crisis brought home the message loud and clear: only businesses with real revenues survive.  Which probably means that for all my yelling and screaming, Zoho is quite right coming out with an email system that meets the needs of businesses who actually pay for it.  After all, this is what enables them to offer all the other apps I like for free.  And I like free. smile_wink

(Disclosure: I’ve been a long-time Advisor to Zoho and they are exclusive sponsor of my main gig, CloudAve. This article has been cross-posted there.)

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Google Gears-powered Offline Mail, Application Marketplace by Zoho

Planned releaseLeak?  it doesn’t matter anymore, InformationWeek has just pre-announced two planned major Zoho upgrades:

Zoho Creator 3 will come with an apps marketplace, something I asked for a while ago. The App Store will allow developers set their own prices and keep 100% of the revenue.  It will also become a code-to-order marketplace: if you don’t find an app you need, spec it out, and receive offers from developers.

Now for the fun part: since the Chrome Comic Book, what better way to introduce a major new offering then by a comic video?

(Update:  Since the news was indeed unintentionally leaked, not released, I took off the embedded video.  The 356 of you who saw it: consider it a preview.  An updated version will be back @ Launch)

The other major announcement is making Zoho’s Web-based Mail service available off-line, based on Google Gears.  This will no doubt give Zoho Mail a competitive edge for a while.

It’s somewhat ironic that Zoho is always first to implement Google Gears (is Zoho doing Google’s testing?)  but if the past is any indication, Google’s own Gmail should follow suit soon.

Both upgrades are expected to go live in the coming weeks.

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Web Applications on the Desktop

The latest trend in Web Applications is – surprise, surprise! – going back on to the desktop. e Adobe Air and Mozilla Prism are two technologies that help Web Apps behave more .. hm, surprise, surprise! … desktop-like. Full circle? Why the “move to the cloud” circus if we’re coming back to the desktop anyway?

Well, we’re not. We’re just doing web apps differently. Matthew Gertner, former CTO of Allpeers (in the deadpool) who is currently working on Prism provides his perspective on TechCrunch. I can’t even attempt to add to the technical discussion, so I’ll play the dumb business user (won’t be too difficult smile_sarcastic) and explain what I see from that angle.

First of all, there appears to be some confusion in this dialogue: Google Gears and Single Site Browsers (SSBs) are two different animals, even if Gears has future extension plans.

  • Gears is all about offline access, which, let’s face it, make sense, until we have “always-on, everywhere” connectivity. It’s data access, and it’s good, albeit somewhat cludgy.
  • SSB’s are all about convenience: instead of just having tabs in the browser, certain applications now have their own window, can be minimized, when closed can show up in the systray ..etc – in other words they behave like desktop applications. When the everything-in-a-browser concept became popular we all worked on 15-17″ displays. Today huge displays are affordable and popular – but now that I have all this screen real-estate, I’d like to be able to display 3-4 windows at a time – not flip-flopping between, but have them all available. I can’t do that with the browser tabs, unless I launch multiple browsers ( waste of resources) or find the way to detach some tabs – that’s what SSB’s do.

A commenter on TechCrunch asks:

So it is progress to send things back to being one window with no tabs?
Wasn’t the point of tabs to put all of those windows into one?

No. The point was not having to install myriad applications that need to be patched, the data files scanned for viruses ..etc. Now, I consider myself progressive, and like to support the future trend just out of principle, but I am first of all a user, and nothing convinces a user better then their own pain. So here are a few examples of my own pain with desktop computing, just from the last two days.

  • I turned on an older laptop I don’t often use nowadays, and I literally had no access to it, the damn thing kept itself busy for an hour with Windows Update, McAfee update, (I killed the virus can), Foldershare sync and Copernic desktop search indexing. In other words, it was struggling just to stay up-to-date, and I could only get to use it an hours or so later.
  • The very reason I turned it on is that even though I now have a screamer desktop, I have to fall back on the slow laptops any time I need to edit a PDF file: my trusted old Adobe Acrobat 6 is not supported on Vista, and I am not about to cough up the price when I don’t need new functionality, so I have to keep the old junk running, just to avoid losing functionality I paid for. I won’t have to do this forever, some of the Web-based Acrobat alternatives are getting pretty good…
  • I’m in the middle of a major paper elimination project: throwing away boxes of expired folders, keeping only electronic copies of the crucial stuff. This involved hours of installing and uninstalling obsolete software this afternoon: Turbotax versions all the way from 1996 only so I can read the .tax file once and convert it to PDF. Intuit now offers Turbotax entirely online, and while I haven’t found any info on how long they support retrieval of old returns, as the years go by I’m sure they will address it – and I don’t have to install anything.
  • A few hours later the old PC started to choke: it ran out of hardware space. Impossible! Just a few months ago I removed all my photos, that’s a huge gain, I should have ample space. Yeah, right, it turns out Foldershare, which I use to keep the 3 household computers in sync accumulated over 10G in its trash folders, which is nothing on the new PC, but a third of the old laptop’s 30Mb storage capacity. And would you believe there’s no setup option to auto-clear trash from time to time? (It can auto-delete your real files, just not trash.)

Personal computers, and the desktop computing model were liberating in the 80’s, when they got us off the dumb green terminals, which we could only access at work, that is those of use who worked at large corporations who could afford a mainframe. PC’s were expensive enough that any one of us only owned one, if any, and the ability to work on that single machine actually meant increased access and mobility. But as we upgrade, we tend to keep the older computers, and I bet most of my readers have more than one computer in their household, let alone business.

Keeping all of them up-to-date, having the same Application versions on all, synchronizing data is becoming more and more of a pain. Just as computing shifted to the Client model in the late 80’s, we’re facing another shift now, and the move off the desktop, on to the Cloud will be just as liberating as getting onto it was 20 years ago. Access to applications and data will no longer will be tied to a particular piece of hardware and we don’t worry about updates, maintenance – offload it to the Service Provider.

In other words Software as a Service is increasingly all about the second “S”.

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Google Gears goes Mobile – Zoho First to Take Advantage

Mobility is supposed to be about 24/7 connectivity, isn’t it?  I’m writing this on a a 7.2Mbps HSDPA mobile connection while visiting my parents in Hungary.   HSDPA is like 3G on steroids, and we’re not even close to universal 3G coverage in the US.  What’s more, forget data, I’d be happy with just universal voice coverage right here in the heart of Technology.  I get measly coverage (half a bar only right next to the window) in my house, but what’s a real shame, try talking on a T-mobile phone on the long walkway from Parking to the International Terminal at SFO: zero, nada, no signal at all.

Until that’s fixed, mobility isn’t about 24/7 connectivity, it’s about 24/7 access, online or offline.  Which is why it’s great to see Google Gears Mobile released today, initially for Internet Explorer Mobile on Windows Mobile 5 and 6.  Now you don’t lose vital information when your phone goes offline. 

The first two apps taking advantage of Gears Mobile are Buxfer a finance tracking application and Zoho Writer.

 

The current Zoho Mobile Offline version (wow, that’s a mouthfulsmile_tongue) is view only – if you recall, it did not take long for Zoho to add edit capabilities to the Gears-based offline version on the desktop, so we can likely expect the same here, too.

This video presents Zoho Writer Offline in use.   As a reminder, Zoho also works on the iPhone, at at izoho.com – offline support will come just as soon as Google Gears will support it.

 

Related posts: Google Mobile Blog, TechCrunchTechMoz, VentureBeat, Mashable, The Buxfer Post, 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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Now You Can Really Zoho Offline

As much as I am a certified web-app fan, I’m not naive enough to believe I’ll always have 100% broadband availability. Crazy shooters, limited conference availability, or just traveling to less covered areas (and I don’t mean here) – there will be times when we need our documents offline.

That’s why I’m happy to see Zoho Writer get offline editing capabilities today. The offline implementation is based on Google Gears, which, ironically, has yet to show up in Google’s own Apps. This video tutorial walks you through the new features – note, the steps to install Google Gears are obviously required only once. After that, you just click “Go Offline”, and can access your documents at writer.zoho.com/offline. When you’re connected again, click “Go Online” and Zoho will sync your changes back to the original document.

The features are more than covered by all the “big names”, including TechCrunch, Read/WriteWeb, GigaOM, /Message, Digital Inspiration, CenterNetworks, Webware.com and Wired – to name just a few. I’ll focus on what’s still missing, and a few comments.

Yes, this is not a perfect solution – yet. Going offline has to be a planned activity since you actively need to click the option while still online; this is the way Google Gears works for now. But life produces unexpected situations, like the other day when I had to hop on a train, and was staring at an empty Google Reader as I had forgotten to click “Offline” at home (Google Reader’s offline capability is also based on Gears). But Zoho never stops enhancing their products, and they plan to tackle auto detecting online/offline status and periodically sync the contents of online and offline documents.

Some reviewers compare Zoho’s approach to full integration by Live Documents. I find it rather funny: since when can we compare a PR release to existing products? GigaOM’s headline is also quite surprising: Zoho Seeks to Replace, Not Embrace, Microsoft Office. Again, this in comparison to yet-to-be-launched Live Documents‘ “embrace and extend” strategy. What this comparison forgets to mention is that Zoho has their own MS Office plugins, so, using their analogy, Zoho’s strategy includes “embrace, extend or replace”. The choice is up to the users, as it should be.

Last but not least, the little birds are singing that the next Zoho announcement will prove that web-based apps can be on par with their desktop counterparts: care to guess which application I am talking about? smile_wink

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Google & Zoho: Friend or Foe?

When Zoho introduced the offline version of their word processor, Zoho Writer, no commentators (including yours truly) missed the chance to point out the irony that the solution is based on Google Gears, while Google’s own competing Docs do not have this capability yet.

Zoho, which competes head-on with Google Docs & Spreadsheets, managed to launch offline functionality on their product before Google did. The fact that they are using Google software to do this makes the story somewhat ironic. (TechCrunch)

it’s very ironic that Zoho Writer has incorporated off-line features before its competitor, Google Docs, did. And by using Google Gears software developed by Google itself! (Proud Geek)

Donna Bogatin @ Insider Chatter went further:

What IS up with the would be Microsoft Office killer, Google Apps? Chief Googler Eric Schmidt proclaims “Search, Ads and Apps” is the new Google worldwide domination motto, but he is helping competitors Sun StarOffice AND Zoho attempt to steal Microsoft’s thunder, while Google Office remains Microsoft Office killer MIA.

First, Google subsidizes free downloads of Sun’s supposed Microsoft Office replacement via its Google Pack.

Now, Google Gears powers direct Google Apps competitor Zoho in an offline initiative, while Google Apps itself remains firmly in the cloud!

Google is either planning something VERY big for Google Apps, or it is retrenching.

While I have no idea what the plans for Google Apps are – after the StarOffice announcement there was speculation whether the future is syncing to StarOffice or Gears-based offline – they are definitely not retrenching. This is not a matter of “who gets there first”. In fact it’s not even cut-throat competition. Of all the reports, I believe Techdirt got it right:

As we noted when Gears was first announced, Google was clearly interested in advancing the whole area of web-based software, not just in pushing its own apps. Just as Microsoft seems hesitant to give even the slightest endorsement of this model, Google recognizes that it will benefit, regardless of which offerings users choose in the short term.

Exactly. Any time you, me, any user makes a choice between Google Docs or Zoho Writer, Google Spreadsheet or Zoho Sheet, it’s clearly a competitive situation. But in other ways, Google’s and Zoho’s interests are well aligned. I’ve said a number of times before, it’s not about slicing the pie yet, it’s about making sure the pie will be huge . Both Google and Zoho have vested interest in promoting the paradigm shift from PC-based to Web-based computing. Competitors can be friends – it’s not unheard of, just think of arch-rivals Oracle and SAP: cut-throat competitors in the enterprise application market – yet as a database vendor, Oracle is an important SAP partner.

But let’s be clear, I’m not trying to give the impression the Gears-based Zoho development was the result of some grand Google-Zoho master plan. Nothing would be further from the truth. Google Gears is an Open Source project (check out Donna Bogatin’s post for details) , a significant one, and “Mother Google” is not trying to control who uses it for what. Let’s go to the source though: Dion Almaer of the Google Gears team said:

Of course, Google could have held Gears back and released it at the same time as a bunch of offline Google applications, but that isn’t the point. Gears is about making the Web a better place through offline, and we want the Web to be able to benefit.

That is why I am excited to see (Zoho) Writer join the list of developers that use Gears.

In fact Dion called to congratulate the Zoho team, and visited their Pleasanton office to interview Sridhar Vembu, CEO, and Raju Vegesna, Evangelist. Here’s the video:

And if that was not enough media, Raju is going live on the Computer America radio show at 7pm PST tonight. (I hope he won’t sing smile_wink)

(Disclaimer: I’m an Advisor to Zoho, however, the article above is a reflection of my own thinking, not a statement from Zoho.)


Further reading: Zoho Blogs, Insider Chatter

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Now You Can Zoho Offline

As much as I moved online I’m not naive enough to believe I’ll always have 100% broadband availability. Crazy shooters, limited conference availability, or just traveling to less covered areas (and I don’t mean here) – there will be times when we need our documents offline.

Seamless online/offline access has just become easier today, with Zoho introducing offline support for your Writer documents. Ironically, this has been implemented using Google Gears, not yet offered in Google Docs & Spreadsheets. (In all fairness, we don’t really know if a Gears-based offline mode in in the plans for Google docs, there was some speculation that StarOffice becomes an alternative).

In Zoho Writer you just click “Go Offline”, and if you don’t have it yet, first this will trigger the Google Gears download/install process, than, and any time after this it will simply download your Zoho documents to your local PC. Your documents are available at http://writer.zoho.com/offline. See more details on this video:

For now, offline access is read-only, but Zoho is working on providing active editing capabilities in the next few weeks. It’s worth mentioning that Zoho has long offered an alternative, the Zoho MS Office plugin (previous coverage here) .

Commenting is another important feature added in today’s update. Now that there are three recognized leaders – Google, Zoho, ThinkFree – on the online office market, niche players (e.g. Coventi) pop up here and there focusing on a particular area not supported by the “Big Three”. The problem with being a feature-based niche player is that you can never know when the “majors” add your feature-set. Zoho has just done it.

You can easily add a comment, and of course all users the document is shared to can do the same, making up a conversation-thread, indicated by a comment icon ( picture-1.png ) in the text. Clicking on it pulls up the actual comments (see below), or you can see all comments inside the document by clicking on the comments icon ( picture-4.png ) on the status bar.

Talk about conversation let’s not forget that Zoho Chat is integrated right into Writer, so you can have real-time conversation with your collaborators or leave comments. As usual, Zoho will continue enhancing the comments functionality.

(Disclosure: I’m an Advisor to Zoho)

For additional coverage, read: TechCrunch, Read/WriteWeb, Mashable, Proud Geek, Open Source Guy, Techchee, Collaborative Thinking, TechBizMedia, Insider Chatter, Download Squad, jkOnTheRun, Office Evolution, CNET News.com, mathewingram.com/work, Ajaxian, CyberNet Technology News, Profy.Com, The Universal Desktop, PC World, Techdirt.