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Ulteohhhhh…

Before I say anything, I want to prefix this post by stating that I am an Advisor to Zoho, which can be perceived as a competitor to Ulteo, the company that just announced providing OpenOffice On-Demand. That said, I often I’ve repeatedly stated my belief that we’re at a state of early expansion for Software as a Service, and for now, the more players the better. It’s not about slicing the pie yet, it’s about making sure the pie will be huge:

Summing it all up, I believe the winner of the “on-demand race” will not be Google, Zoho, or any of their competitors – the winners will be the customers who will have a lot more choice in picking the right business solutions later this year.

So I am happy to see new On-Demand offerings that work – and am royally p***ed when they don’t. I tried to use Ulteo, repeatedly. At the first attempt in the morning, I got stuck with a blank screen:

Next I tried in the evening: I spent a minute or so at the above blank screen, but finally I got some signs of life:

Oops… I don’t know of another instance, I don’t have Openoffice installed on this machine, and a Vista glitch forced me to reboot since my early morning attempt with Ulteo. And I certainly have no clue who the *** user u7670 is or how I should close Openoffice for this user on the Ulteo servers. But let’s click Yes to continue anyway:

Why am I in document recovery mode and just what is it I am about to recover? Finally, I got into this somewhat broken screen:

Not a very positive experience, if you ask me. On the other hand, it’s still more than the previous web-office “announcement”: Live Documents, which is still to materialize…some time next year.

Like I said, I am happy to see more On-Demand services. Those that actually exist, and perhaps even work.smile_eyeroll

Update: Jason Brooks at eWeek had similar experience.

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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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TheUltimateSteal = TheUltimateBug. MS Giveaway on Perpetual Countdown.

It’s really refreshing to see Microsoft sell Office 2007 at its true value. $60 is fair value, IMHO – although college students might still opt for pirated versions, or the free Open Office, or the also free Web offices. They certainly have choices.

MS labels this promotion The Ultimate Steal. Hm… that may be so in more than one way. www.theultimatesteal.com was supposed to go live early afternoon… I saw it count down less than two hours before lunch. Then later in the afternoon I saw it at 4 hours to go. Now, 11:10pm PST. the countdown is at 14 hours and 5 minutes, definitely stretching into tomorrow!

A commenter called it The Ultimate Publicity Scam. I think it’s just a bug. A lousy one. What was I even thinking complaining about Vista bugs, when MightySoft can’t even get a promo site up working properly?

Check it out yourself: www.theultimatebug.com.

Update: As of 9:15am on the 13th the site is now fixed.

Related posts: One Microsoft Way, CyberNet Technology News, Tom Raftery’s Social Media, Microsoft Watch, CrunchGear, Mobility Site, InfoWorld, Compiler, Forever Geek, istartedsomething, BetaNews, ParisLemon, All about Microsoft, AccMan Pro, WinBeta, GigaOM, PaulStamatiou.com, HipMojo.com, Good Morning Silicon Valley, Download Squad , gHacks and Windows Connected

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Everything on this Vista PC is an Afterthought

OK, so I bit the bullet: after being so critical of Vista, I ended up buying a PC blessed cursed with this Operating System. Not that I changed my mind: I simply wanted an ergonomic desktop, for the times I’m stuck at the desk anyway. Costco had a fairly good promotional offer on a loaded super-duper-multimedia HP with this beauty of a display.

Well, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but this 22″ baby has beautiful colors, is fast and the most versatile I’ve seen – it can even pivot to portrait position – except I don’t know why I would want to do that, considering the software does not work, not even after the update.

But first things first: unpacking. This thing has a wireless keyboard and mouse, which is nice – but why on earth do I need to plug in a USB transmitter for them to work? This isn’t an after-market add-on, this configuration only comes with wireless. Talk about wireless, this being a desktop, my primary desktop connection will be via the LAN cable, but why does HP bundle another plug-in, a wireless antenna with this unit? (which, incidentally was missing from my package). Why not just build it in. OK, let’s move on: this whole multimedia center thingie (TV, DVR, remote) does not excite me a lot, but since it there, I will eventually figure out how to work it. But wait: for the remote to work, I have to … yes, you guessed it right, I have to plug-in yet another component, a wireless receiver.

I am not trying to expand the system: out-of-the-box, just to use the basic capabilities I have to plug-in three “extensions” that could very well have been built in. Are these features all afterthoughts? (And I haven’t even mentioned the jungle of cables into the monitor, including a USB connector to enable the two other USB ports on the side of the display).

The next two days were spent with installation, which primarily consisted of removing some of the junk software loaded by HP (I still could not get rid of the Yahoo Search-bar at the bottom!) and setting up my own stuff. I killed the 60-day Norton trial, not that McAfee is better, but it’s free with my Comcast subscription. Too bad it wouldn’t install. This turned out to be a case study on the worth of Customer Support:

  • Costco Concierge on the phone: after 4-5 minutes she is still stuck trying to spell my name – who has time for this? No way she can help me.
  • HP Online Support: quickly says the disclaimer that it’s not a HP product, so I should really go to the other vendor, but he will try to help anyway. Well, 8-10 minutes later he concludes I should go to Windows Safe mode for this install. Oh, boy. If I have to start safe-moding on a vanilla, out-of-the box machine, what else am I in for during the lifetime of this thing? I tell him I won’t do this exercise, will likely return the machine next day
  • McAfee Online Support: he is quite clueless, too, but has an interesting prospective: perhaps, despite the aborted installation (which I repeated 4 times, Control Panel-uninstall-reboot-install included) McAfee might actually be working properly on my machine. Although he didn’t seem to get the concept of corrupted (or missing files) and had no way to verify his idea, he still planted the bug in me, so later, on my own I found a McAfee diagnostic tool that verified that I have the correct setup on my system. So, perhaps I am protected. I guess that’s the definition of hopeware.

I will spare you the details of my two-day struggle with Vista, the fight with the idiotic permission-scheme, (can’t delete my own stuff), the incompatibilities, the fact that there’s less and less information to be found, other than from users – hey, even the User Manuals link points to nowhere… enough said already. After two days, I can use the system (the screen is beautiful) but I’m far from done.

I’m starting to see how this supposedly good deal will turn out to be more expensive then a matching Mac. The funny sad thing is, I myself talked about this, describing the $1,500 iPhone: it’s the cost of my own time.smile_sad . This whole Vista-Microsoft-HP-Dell-you-name-it enchilada is anything but user friendly, a pain to work with. In fact, “work” is the operational word here: I don’t want to work setting up this thing, I just want to use it. Perhaps Steve Jobs and co. are turning a disadvantage into an advantage: they are not the darlings of the corporate market.. so they have to focus on individual users, who don’t have an IT department to support them. That means they are just turning out usable, friendly boxes.

Oh, talk about boxes, Joel Spolsky has a hilarious post today: Even the Office 2007 box has a learning curve, discussing Office 2007′s fancy box (which is the same design Vista comes in):

…I simply could not figure out how to open the bizarre new packaging.
…It represents a complete failure of industrial design; an utter F in the school of Donald Norman’s Design of Everyday Things.
…It seems like even rudimentary usability testing would have revealed the problem. A box that many people can’t figure out how to open without a Google search is an unusually pathetic failure of design.

Chris Pirillo responds: Windows Vista Isn’t for Developers?

Hm, now I really don’t know what to think. All this while I’ve been making the point that Vista is not for earthly users; now Chris makes the point it’s not for developers, either. So, who exactly is Vista meant to be for?

Update: How timely… read Raju, a Mac Convert’s testimony: Windows (Dell) to Mac: Thats a smooth ride. Damn. I have 90 days (Costco’s return policy) to make up my mind. But even if I take the smooth ride, no-one is paying for my wasted time….

Update #2: I’m speechless… but Vista has just given me another proof that’s it’s not meant for *users*. Here’s am error window:

Windows decided to mess with Firefox, without telling me, the owner of the computer what it did. OK, let’s click on the link, perhaps it tells us what happened:

What changes does it make?

It depends on the problem, but any changes made are related to how Windows runs the program.

blahblahblah … but it gets better:

How do I turn it off or turn it back on?

Adjustments to the Program Compatibility Wizard can be made by using Group Policy. For more information on how to use Group Policy, go to the Microsoft website for IT professionals.

So let’s get this straight: Vista makes changes to my system, to the most important program I use, Firefox, without asking me, without telling me what those changes were, how to undo them. And if I want to prevent such aggression in the future, I should go to the “IT Professionals” site.

Well, I won’t. A computer sold at Costco, BestBuy, Fry’s ..etc is a Consumer Device. I am a Consumer. This Operating System is NOT for consumers. Microsoft (via HP) sold me garbage.

I can’t wait for the Vista related Class Action cases.

Update: I think I’ll try this tweaky-thingy recommended at WebWorkerDaily.

Update (8/23): Dell must share my views of Vista, or in fact Windows in general, having shipped this laptop without any OS at all ;-)

Update (8/23): Even a 6-year-old knows better… he is right, my next PC will be an Apple. And since I’m already doing most of my work on the Web, the transition won’t be a big deal.

OK, this is too much of a coincidence (or not?): when I described Microsoft Money as a showcase for what’s wrong with Microsoft’s Software + Service concept, Omar Shahine, a Microsoft employee responded – he experienced very similar problems. And what am I reading today on Omar’s blog? It’s been a bad month for Vista.

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Sun’s Web-search Enabled StarOffice Now Included in Google Pack

The announcement is not a surprise (update: Sun kept the surprise for tomorrow) since Google Operating System outed it days ago: Google now includes Sun’s StarOffice, previously costing $70 in their free Google Pack. As you could expect, reactions range for labeling it as Google goes after Microsoft again (the New York Times) through shrugging it off to declaring a Microsoft victory.

Microsoft’s Don Dodge asks:

What has changed? Star Office has been around for 8 years and has gained no traction.

I can’t believe he does not know the answer: it’s mass distribution, getting installed “by default” (even if selectable), that’s what’s changed.

Donna Bogatin, Defender of the Faith (in Microsoft, that, is) goes further, claiming this move a victory for Microsoft:

Who needs Microsoft Office? Who needs the Microsoft Desktop? StarOffice, Google do. WHAT ARE THE SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS FOR GOOGLE PACK? You must have Microsoft Windows XP or Windows Vista. SO, every Google Pack download with, or without, Sun StarOffice, is a MICROSOFT WIN!

Wow, what a discovery, the OS monopoly means a victory for Microsoft even as their applications are replaced by competing products … I don’t think Microsoft would have loved this argument in the antitrust case. She goes even further:

Sun StarOffice itself needs Microsoft Office, big time. The StarOffice value proposition is Microsoft Office dependent: “Now you can have a full-featured office productivity suite that’s compatible with Microsoft Office at just a slice of the cost.”

Donna obviously mixes compatibility with dependency. Of course Office app vendors strive for MS compatibility, that’s simple due to the Microsoft monopoly no-one (other than Microsoft) would question. But to call the fact that these products are actually replacing MS Office a win for Microsoft is a stretch to say the least. In fact Donna spins so masterfully, is she ever goes into politics, she’ll have a safe place at the O’Reilly Factor on FOX News. Oh, and Donna, how about opening up comments on your blog?

Dan Farber at ZDNet is a lot more balanced, and he asks the right question:

But is StarOffice, Google Apps or whatever Adobe, Zoho, Zimbra, ThinkFree and others are doing a game changer, massive disruptors that will eviscerate Microsoft’s super-profitable Office business and free users from .doc and .xls tyranny?

Tyranny is the key word here. The Office monopoly means that millions of people are using it out of fear – fear of losing compatibility, or perhaps simply due to inertia. StarOffice will not be an absolute “winner” by itself, nor will the rumored Adobe product – but, along with the web-based offering from Google, Zoho and ThinkFree, together they make a dent… lots of small dents, for that matter.

Personally I am a big fan of Web-based services, and I don’t ever want to see bloatware that needs to be installed and constantly upgraded on my computer – unless it provides vital functions that are not available online (yet). But I understand it’s a matter of preferences. If I still was a world traveler like Vinnie, I’d probably prefer to have my apps and data “in a box”, too. Offline or online, the choice will largely depend on our lifestyles, and the need to collaborate or not.

What’s important is a behavioral, cultural change, the fact that business and millions of individuals – employees, students, freelancers, moonlighters, small business workers.. anyone – realize that they no longer need a Microsoft product to stay compatible.

You and I are likely using different email products or services. Yet we can email to each other flawlessly. Why wouldn’t the Office market be the same? If When we have a market with several capable products, when users don’t accept the default, but select based on features, service, price … you name it, i.e. when they have choice – we all win. Be it offline or online.

Update (8/16): Oh, you Fools, don’t you know that mindshare is everything?

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Microsoft is Freeing Users from Office-Prison

The likely reason news of Microsoft’s Office 2007 “Kill Switch” did not cause a lot more uproar is that it surfaced during Thanksgiving week:

“Buried in a Knowledge Base article that Microsoft published to the Web on November 14 are details of Microsoft’s plans to combat Office 2007 piracy via new Office Genuine Advantage lockdowns.

Office 2007 users who can’t or won’t pass activation muster within a set time period will be moved into “reduced-functionality mode.””

As unpopular as this move will be, it’s perfectly within Microsoft’s rights to dump users who don’t become customers. The question is, is it a smart move? ZDNet attempts to do the math in The economics of Microsoft’s kill switch:

“Would you sacrifice $10 million in sales to prevent $1 billion in software piracy? How about $100 million? How many customers would you annoy?”

I don’t think it’s simply a numbers game. Whatever Microsoft’s “loss” to piracy is, it’s not going to be converted to sales. First of all, the “kill switch” comes with the retail product, large corporate customers volume licence is not affected.  So we’re talking about smaller businesses and individuals (I am focusing on the US market). A fraction of these may be “forced”  to buy a licence, but the large majority won’t.   What we really need to look at is why these users run MS Office in the first place.

“The simple argument that ‘this is good enough for 90 percent of what we do’ has fallen on its face over and over and over again,”Microsoft would like us to think.

I don’t buy it.  I don’t use fancy features in Word, have repeatedly stated that my Excel skills are on the level I learned using Lotus 1-2-3 – yet I have Office on my computer.  So does virtually anyone who occasionally needs to receive/send files to Corporate America.  Not because they need all the features, but out of fear (losing compatibility) and laziness.   But believe me, these users will rather switch to another product than shell out hundreds of dollars for a MS licence.

They might actually find the experience quite rewarding.  OpenOffice is a free alternative, but it’s big, clumsy, needs installation and updates just like MS Office – web-based alternatives, “Office 2.0” products are increasingly powerful, fast, easy-to-use, and allow one to access files anywhere.  It’s safer in the cloud smile_wink.
Office 2.0 vendors bend over backwards to make it easier to work with Microsoft files.  Zoho ( a Client of mine) has a full online Office Suite that easily imports MS files, and of course saves your work in doc, xls and other MS formats, just as well as PDF and several others.  The Zoho Quickread plugin allows opening of any MS Office files directly from the browser (IE, FF) without first importing/converting them. Tomorrow Zoho will release plugins for the major MS Office products, making it easy to save files online directly from within the Office applications.

The danger for Microsoft is not the direct financial impact of these users turning away from their product, since the never paid in the first place. It’s losing their grip; the behavioral, cultural change, the very fact that millions of people – students, freelancers, moonlighters, small business workers,  unemployed – realize that they no longer need a Microsoft product to work with MS file formats.  Microsoft shows these non-customer users the door, and they won’t come back – not even tomorrow when they are IT consultants, corporate managers, executives.  That’s Microsoft’s real loss.

Update (11/30):  See TechCrunch and the Zoho blog on the new announcements.

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Zoho – the “Safer Office”

(Updated)
It’s somewhat ironic that in the very days I’ve just written about Duet, the joint SAP-Microsoft product, I am seriously thinking of escaping from Microsoft-prison, and switching to the most promising WebOffice (Office 2.0) suite. Perhaps I am part of the trend that prompted Vinnie to consider Duet a “nice-to-have” only, but generally too little, too late. (I actually disagree with him, Microsoft’s lock on corporate users is far heavier than on individuals or small businesses.. but that’s another discussion). Update: I’ve had this post half-written for a while, and now we’re getting warned left and right: “use Word in safe mode“, “don’t open Word attachments from Outlook” – the fix from Microsoft is not expected until mid-June. WTF? That’s three weeks away! I am sick of it, just as much as I am sick of Outlook forgetting where the address book is again, freezing on me frequently, and I am especially sick of MS crippling my computer via the automatic Windows updates. While I can’t get rid of Windows (just yet), I can certainly get rid of buggy unsafe Office. Office 2.0, here I come!

But what’s Office 2.0? First of all, terminology: some call it Office 2.0, others Web Office: the point is to have web-based applications that are accessible via a browser, without any download, that will store the data files on the web, too (sorry AjaxWrite, you are out), thus making all my stuff accessible from any computer, any time (as long as I have Internet access).

I’ve been using Writely for a while, so when I first found Zoho Writer, it was a non-event: both editors are equally good, convenience wins, no need to switch. Are any of these Microsoft Word killers? Scoble would laugh it off, they would not stand a feature-by-feature comparison. So what? I am part of the 90% crowd that barely uses 10% of Word’s functionality anyway. Then I found Thumbstack, a web-based “mini-powerpoint”, that allows me to share and collaborate on presentations easily. It does not do a lot of fancy things, amongst them the animated transitions – great, so now I can focus on substance in my presentations, rather than disruptive entertainment. What about a spreadsheet? Zoho Sheet is easy to use, and is aesthetically pleasing – a point so often missed. Is it as poweful as Excel? Of course not. But my Excel knowledge is probably on the level of Lotus 1-2-3 anyway, so for me, Zoho is the Excel-killer. I also have Stikipad, Calcoolate, Box.net … and a few others – all in my Firefox “Office 2.0″ bookmark.

The only problem is, when I am not on my own PC, sometimes I forget what’s where… and of course my data files reside with the various service providers, and I am not completely at ease with my digital life being so fragmented. See where I am heading? This move to the Web is liberating, but the plethora of different services causes a bit of chaos. There are two basic concepts to deal with the chaos:

  • Some of the Web storage companies, like Box.net, Omnipage, Openomny ..etc .. offer their open API’s to application providers, or make one-to-one tight integration and propose that we store all our data centrally, no matter which application accesses them. This is definitely a step forward, in terms of data management, but I am still dealing with point applications, without any integration between them..
  • The second concept obviously is one-stop-shopping: is there one service that offers ALL the MS Office capabilities (with the common simplification we just discussed)? The answer is increasingly yes: Zoho is releasing new applications at an impressive speed, and they come with 1G of storage. While I would not have left Writely for the sake of Zoho writer only, the abililty to have everyting under one hood is just too damn tempting. I can have Writer, Sheet, Presenter (due out in the very near feature) all from the same source, my data is stored at the same place, and although currently these applications require individual registrations, in the near future they will be available with a single sign-on.

The Zoho guys also promise integration between these applications, and I have reason to believe they will be able to pull it off – after all, they already have the Zoho Virtual Office, which incorporates several of these offices in an integrated fashion. AdvantNet, a 500-person company (of which about a 100 work on Zoho) runs entirely on Zoho Virtual Office. Currently Virtual Office is a downloadable server-side product accessible via the Web, but Zoho will offer a Web-hosted version in the future. Without integration an Office 2.0 is not really Office 2.0, just a collection of online applications. (For those who may not remember, it took Microsoft long years to achieve some level of integration in their Office; for several years and throughout several releases “integration” was copy/paste, and quite painful as such.)

Zoho leverages a good deal between the different product offerings: some parts of Virtual Office make it into the individual applications, and vice versa, some of the standalone products become part of Virtual Office. For example 1G storage is now an implicit part of using the applications, but Zoho Drive will soon be available as a standalone service, too. Ah, and let’s not forget about Zoho Creator, which is exactly what the name suggests: an easy web-application creator. They even go beyond traditional Office functionality, into the transactional world buy providing Zoho CRM, a web based, or downloadable full-featured CRM system. Fully featured means supporting the full sales-related workflow, including vendors and purchase orders all the way to sales orders and invoicing… definitely more then just a “glorified contact manager” as the other guy is often referred to.

Listening and responding to customers is an area a lot of companies fail nowadays – Zoho seems to excel here, too. As part of research for this post I looked at earlier reviews, and several features reported “missing” from Writer are already included in the current product. There is a direct feedback link from the applications, and the longest response time I experienced was a few hours – sometimes it’s just minutes. In comparison, a question I posted on the Writely forum over two weeks ago is still unanswered – I guess those guys are busy finding their place in Google.

Summing it up: Zoho pumps out new applications at an amazing rate (check the site for a few more I haven’t even mentioned). While one by one most of their applications are comparable to at least another web-based application, I am not aware of any other company offering such a complete suite, with that level of support and the realistic prospect of integrating the applications soon. For me the choice is obvious: Zoho is my Office 2.0 Suite.

I’d like to touch on another issue, namely the value of being first, “original” vs. doing something better the second time – but for the sake of readability I’ll break it out to another post – soon.

Update (5/27): Assaf, who made blog conversations really trackable by bringing us co.mment read my post and gave the Zoho Virtual Office a try. His overall impression is positvie, but he also includes some criticism – just as he should. One thing I learned is that Zoho listens and moves fast. Another obeservation (of mine) is that they seem to move in iterations:

  • The downloadable Zoho Virtual Office has been around for a while (they run a 500-person company on it)
  • Now they are focusing on individual “Office” components making them available on the Web
  • Finally they will relase their own hosted version of Virtual Office probably incorporating may improvements they’ve made in the standalone products.

Update (6/6 -yes, the famous 666!): Google Spreadsheet is out, the blogosphere is abuzz, and I won’t have the time to write today, but at least I wanted to point to Ismael’s article, since he arrives to the same conclusions I did…