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Zoho Show: Another Step Towards Better Group Collaboration

I don’t normally write about incremental product updates, even if they come from one of my Clients – like in this case Zoho.  But today’s Zoho Show update touches a pet peeve of mine, group collaboration, specifically the lack of portable group definitions available for many online services.

For example the Enterprise Irregulars group has intense discussion threads using Google Groups, which I often praised for stepping out of being just a group email mechanism, becoming a mini community/collaborative platform.  But it’s a closed system, the definition of a “group”, i.e. it’s members does not exist outside the Groups application, we can’t just simply share a Google Doc,  Spreadsheet, or Calendar with the predefined EI group. Note: I am not complaining about Google specifically ,  most services are like this, basically allowing three levels of collaboration/sharing:

  • none (private)
  • shared with a list of users
  • public

Zoho started to address better Group management about half a year ago, in February, enabling Writer, Sheet and Mail to recognize a Group created in their My Account area.  Today Zoho Show joins the list: you can share your presentations with contacts pulled from Zoho Mail, save them to groups, or use groups defined elsewhere (Mail, Accounts) in Zoho.  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 applications)
  • shared by Domain (i.e. share info within your business)

Other than group collaboration, today’s update brings export capability to PowerPoint and other formats, expanded language support, easy embedding of Picasa images (Flickr support has been available for a while) and more.  For a full list of the enhancements see the Zoho Blog.

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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 Profiles – How About Fixing the Account Chaos First?

Google Profiles are coming:

A Google Profile is simply how you represent yourself on Google products — it lets you tell others a bit more about who you are and what you’re all about. You control what goes into your Google Profile, sharing as much (or as little) as you’d like.

A centralized identity management shared by the zillion Google services is a good idea – except the GOOG should have fixed the foundation first. Yes, there’s chaos around Google accounts, it’s been like that ever since Google Apps were introduced, and fixing it does not appear to be a high priority at all.

In the early days of Google Apps the only way to sign up was by linking to an existing Google Account, in the format of myname@gmail.com. If you have one of those accounts, there is no way to tell Google that you are now myname@mydomain.com. This means that Google Apps think of your original @gmail and new, @domain identities and two different ones. You can directly access (via URL) your own Calendar, Docs, Groups ..etc. all under your own domain, however, programs that need to access those apps only find the other version, attached to your @gmail.com account. A simple example is trying to save an event from Upcoming.org, Zvents, or any other services: there’s no way to use them with your own domain.

Even the Google Groups is messed up: when I am logged in as myname@mydomain.com, Groups that I am a member of won’t recognize me. I actually have to have duplicate identities created in Google Groups: one to be able to send email (my own domain) and one to be able to access Group’s other features via the browser (@gmail format).

I understand that for quite a while now yo don’t have to link Google Apps to a @gmail.com account, your Google Account can be your own domain itself. This is good news, since a lot less users are affected. It’s also bad news, for the very same reason: less users, less pressure to fix it, so the early Beta users are stuck… Of course we could always just create a new account (which does not have the chaos) and move on, but a domain is an investment, I can’t just throw it away. So for now: Google, you got my domain messed up, and any time you add new bells and whistles to Accounts, I will bring this up, until you fix it.

Update (1/20/08): I think it’s fixed now. :-)

Related posts: Google Operating System, TechCrunch, Mashable! , Scobleizer, bub.blicio.us, Marc’s Voice, ParisLemon, Web Worker Daily, WebMetricsGuru, Brandon LeBlanc and Googlified

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JotSpot Google Deal – Who Wins, Why it’s Big:First Thoughts

A few weeks ago the “wikirati” was having dinner with the Enterprise Irregulars in San Francisco, on occasion of the Office 2.0 Conference. Our gracious sponsor was Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes, and JotSpot’s Joe Kraus showed up, too. Missing from the photo is Socialtext’s Ross Mayfield, who was there for the first part, a briefing for Forrester‘s Charlene Li, but left before dinner. (Hm, did Joe eat Ross’s dinner?smile_tongue )

(photo credit: Dan Farber)

I heard a rumor that one of us in the group had likely gotten a few million dollars richer – and it wasn’t me smile_sad… but Joe Kraus, having sold Jot$pot to Google. The source was credible but of course we had already heard about a Yahoo acquisition, then eBay .. so who knows, after all.

I found the timing ironic, just having come back from a Google briefing where they announced Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which left me largely unimpressed. This is what they were missing, I thought.

Today we know it’s a fact: JotSpot is part of Google. After the quick post, here are my first thoughts around who wins, and what it may mean from a user prospective.

Who Wins:

  • Joe, Graham and team for obviou$ rea$ons.
  • Google, for now they have all the pieces for a small business collaboration suite, if they are smart enough to get rid of the junk and integrate the good pieces together – something they have not done before. I’ll talk about this more a few paragraphs below.
  • Some paying JotSpot customers: Jot has had a funny pricing model, where you can start free, but if you exceed a page limit (10?) you have to upgrade. Most users probably don’t realize that because in Jot everything is a page (i.e. add an event to the Calendar, it’s a new page), 10 pages are essentially nothing, if you wanted to do anything but testing, you’d have to upgrade – until now, that is. From now on paying customers will enjoy their current level of service for free.
  • Competitors: JotSpot’s market direction has never been entirely clear; they focused on consumers and small businesses, but were present on the enterprise market, too. I think it’s fair to assume that they are out of the enterprise market at least for a while, leaving only Atlassian and Socialtext as the two serious players.

Who Loses:

  • Some JotSpot customers who’d rather pay but have their data at a company whose business model is charging for services than enjoy free service by Google whose primary business model is to know everything about you. Clearly there will be some migration from JotSpot to other wiki platforms. Update: the competition isn’t sleeping, see migration offers by Socialtext and Atlassian.
  • Me, for having half-written a post about the merits of pure wikis, Office suites and hybrids, which I can scrap now.

Who Needs to Move:

  • Some of the Office 2.0 Suites, including my friends at Zoho. This may be a surprising conclusion, but bear with me for a while, it will all be clear.

So far the balance is good, we have more winners than loserssmile_regular – now let’s look at what Google should do with JotSpot.

They have (almost) all the right pieces/features fragmented in different products, some of them overlapping though. They should kill off the weak ones and integrate the best – a gargantuan task for Google that so far hasn’t pulled off anything similar. Here’s just some of what I mean:

Google Docs & Spreadsheets:
One of the reasons I found the announcement underwhelming was that there really wasn’t a lot of innovation: two apps (Writely and Google Spreadsheets) put together in a uniform look and a file management system. It’s this very file management system that I found weak: how on earth can I work online and manage a jungle of thousands of documents in a flat, alphabetical list? JotSpot may just be the right solution.

Google Groups:
It’s rare for a mature product to go back to beta, but when Google recently did it, it was for good reason: the Groups which so far has been just a group email mechanism, became a mini community/collaborative platform, offering functionality found in collaborative editors like Writely, Zoho Writers, page cross-linking a’la wikis, file management..etc, combining all this with group email and the ability to share with a predefined group. I seriously considered it a major step forward, likely attracting previously “email-only” users to the native web-interface – and we all know why Google loves that.

JotSpot, the “hybrid” wiki:
This will be the somewhat controversial part. First of all, JotSpot is an attractive, easy-to-use wiki, and I believe that’s the value Google should keep.

Second, they’ve been playing around with the concept of being an application platform, which just never took off. The “applications” available in JotSpot are all in-house developed, despite their expectations the world has not come to develop apps on their platform. (Will this change in Google’s hands?). In JotSpot 2.0 they integrated some of the previously existing applications into user-friendly page types: Calendar, Spreadsheet, Photo ..etc, along with regular (text) wiki pages. This is what I considered Jot’s weak part. Just because a page looks like an application, it does not mean it really is:

  • Try to import an Excel spreadsheet into a Jot Spreadsheet page, you’ll get a warning that it does not import formulas. Well, I’m sorry, but what else is there in a spreadsheet but formulas? The previous name, Tracker was fair: it’s a table where you track lists, but not a spreadsheet.
  • Look at a Calendar page: it does not have any functionality. You cannot do group schedules, can’t even differentiate between personal and group events. It’s just a table that looks like a Calendar – reminding me the “electronic” calendars of corporate executives in the 90′s: the Word template that your secretary maintained for you and printed daily…

I guess it’s clear that I am unhappy with Jot’s “application” functionality, but I like it as a wiki. In this respect I tend to agree with Socialtext’s Ross Mayfield, who believes in best-of-breed (whether that’s Socialtext is another question…). Best-of-breed of everything, be it a wiki or other productivity tools. I’ve also stated that my ‘dream setup’ for corporate collaboration: is a wiki with an integrated Office 2.0 Suite. Why?
Other than its collaborative features, a wiki is a map of our logical thinking process: the cross-linked pages provide structure and narrative to our documents, one could think of it as a textual / visual extension of a directory system, resolving the problem of the flat listing of online files that represent fragments of our knowledge. Of course I am not implying that a wiki is just a fancy directory system… au contraire, the wiki is the primary work and collaboration platform, from which users occasionally invoke point applications for number crunching, presentation..etc.

Now Google has it all: they should kill the crap, and combine the JotSpot wiki, their own Office apps ( a good opportunity to dump the lousy Docs & Spreadsheets name), Calendar, Gmail, the Group email from Google Groups and have the Rolls -Royce of small business collaboration.
(Update: Dan Farber over at ZDNet is pondering the same: Is JotSpot the new foundation for Google Office?)

By now it’s probably obvious what I meant by Zoho having to make their move soon: they either need to come up with their own wiki, or team up with a wiki company. Best-of-breed is a great concept and enterprise customers can pick and match their tools on their own. For the SMB market it makes sense to be able to offer a hosted,integrated Wiki/Office solution though. So far Zoho is ahead of Google in Office 2.0, if they want to maintain that leadership, they will need a wiki one way or another.

Of course I could be way off in my speculation and Google may just have bought the team.. either way, congratulations to Joe, Graham and the JotSpot team. thumbs_up

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