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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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Zoho in the Entertainment Business?

You read it here first: Zoho must be planning to take over the entertainment business. Need proof? Just watch the promo video for Zoho Creator Mobile version. Gone are the screenshots, canned demos… it’s all Life 2.0 smile_shades

Hm… I hope his sweethearts’s phone number is not real … otherwise he’s got competition for that movie.smile_tongue

On a more serious note: Zoho is mostly known for their Office Suite and are often compared to Google and Microsoft, when talking about documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Database management and application generation are often overlooked, probably since Google does not have anything to offer in these areas. But Zoho does, and in fact that’s the application that attracts the largest active user base. Creator allows non-tech-types (like yours truly) to easily create fairly sophisticated applications, which are often shared by dozens or hundreds of users. There are about 60K (!)applications developed in Creator, used by over half a million people. (Side note: there must be a fair amount of redundancy among 60 thousand applicationss, and while you can share them publicly today, I’d like to see Zoho develop the search / categorization tools to easily locate them; a sort of “marketplace” even if there’s no actual money flow.)

We can’t really talk about Creator without mentioning a related product: Zoho DB. While Creator is an application generator, DB is primarily for data manipulation, analysis and reporting. Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu explains the differences here.

Computerworld recently listed Zoho Creator amongst the Five free Web apps we can’t live without. There is also a blog started started by users, entirely dedicated to Zoho Creator, with special focus on using it as a small business software platform: Land of Zoho Creator.

(Disclaimer: I’m an Advisor to Zoho.)

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Zoho Suite Gaining Muscle

If you follow the online productivity / collaboration market, you’ve probably noticed that Zoho, the company that earned their fame releasing new products at breakneck speed is slowing down. But are they, really?

I think they are just going through adolescence – you know, the stage when you can grow muscles fast. smile_wink They’ve been silently updating several of their products in the past months. Today’s Writer update includes support for pagination, headers, footers and spell checking in 43 (!) languages. Incidentally, some of these are the very features the Burton group listed as missing from Google Apps in their recent report titled “Google Apps in the Enterprise: A Promotion-Enhancing or Career-Limiting Move for Enterprise Architects?” The original report is 55 pages long, but here’s the InfoWorld summary:

Microsoft Office has a huge lead in features over Google Apps, the Burton Group says, giving these examples:

— Documents: “Google Docs does not support a table of contents, headers, footers, automatic creation of footnotes or end notes.” …

Although the Burton report focused specifically on GAPE (Google Apps Premier Edition), it could be construed as criticism of the the web office market in general. Well, with today’s updates Zoho Writer meets all the Burton Group “requirements”. In fact, Zoho delivers most of what the Burton study considered missing features outside Documents, in the areas of spreadsheet(Sheet), presentation (Show), custom business applications (Zoho DB & Creator) , web conferencing (Zoho Meeting), and wikis (Zoho Wiki).

Several of the above services received updates in the past month – sometimes announced, other times silently appearing, without further ado. In fact that’s an obvious benefit of using web applications: the enhancements are simply available, without the need to apply annoying patches (I could go on listing failed client-side updates from Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe.. you name it). Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu explained his views on updates vs. new products recently. He is obsessed about eventually delivering the “perfect” web applications that fully stand up to Microsoft Office, and recognizes the limitations these services have today.

Frankly, I think he is a perfectionistsmile_wink and perhaps would not even need to go all the way…after all, the point in web applications isn’t simply to replicate the offline experience. Moving applications to the web opens new dimensions, namely mobility and easy, native collaboration. Today’s Writer updates are important, because in our legacy world the challenger is measured against the standards of the incumbent. But Microsoft Office was created at a time when the purpose of document creation was to eventually print it. In the 90’s we thought we’d reach the dream of “paperless office” only to see paper-consumption grow dramatically. (Secretary prints email, faxes it to boss, who makes hand notations, faxes it back for secretary to type again…smile_angry). Today, in the age of better online collaboration (that you can NOT manage on paper) and ergonomic large screens, who prints anymore?

So while I recognize the importance of layout-oriented features (user acceptance), the real value to me is in real-time collaboration (co-editing), version control and restore, embedded chat, web-conferencing, linking, linking and linking – the things that make web documents live. On a side-note, this is why I am surprised that the latest Web Word Processor entrant, Buzzword, beautiful as it is, does not support entering URL’s and real-time co-editing: those omissions defeat the purpose of being on the web.

By the same logic I find Box.net’s Openbox a significant move: it allows to store one’s files online, while making it really easy to use a range of services, initially including Autodesk, Echosign, eFax, Myxer, Picnik, Scribd, Snipshot, Thinkfree, Twitter, Zazzle and Zoho on those files. There will be users who prefer the All-in-one concept, and they will likely settle on Google (bigger brand) or Zoho (more and better apps), but others will prefer picking their individual services, and for those Openbox is a good platform. Choice is good.

Related posts: Wired, CenterNetworks, Mashable, web 2.0 weblog, Zoho Blogs.

Update (10/17):  Google Docs added footnote support.

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Desktopized Web-Applications are a Great Convenience

Mozilla Lab’s Prism, which allows you to ‘desktopize’ your web applications – i.e. represent them by a desktop icon and run them in their own window – is generally well received, so I’m really surprised at Josh Catone’s assessment on Read/WriteWeb (one of my favorite sites):

Except for the minor convenience of running oft-used web apps in their own dedicated window and making them accessible via a desktop icon, Prism isn’t really all that exciting in its current form. It doesn’t offer much of a benefit over bookmarks and your current browser window.

Sure, offline access will be great, when it’s here… but don’t underestimate the importance of users’ convenience, Josh!

I love the fact that about the only program need to launch is FireFox – but I often find the browser too restricting. Now that large LCD’s are getting less expensive, more and more of us find ourselves working on 24″, 32″ ..etc screens – the browser does not allow smart use of all that real-estate. For example I like to use different window sizes for different (web) apps, and often want side-by-side windows, which I could not get using FireFox tabs. Launching another browser session was a rather resource-wasting workaround.

I’ve been using Zoho Writer, Sheet and Show in a desktopized form for almost a year now (literally, since the tool Zoho uses is called “desktopize”). The pic to the right shows part of my desktop, with 3 Zoho icons. They all pop up in my pre-set window size and position, and disappear to the system tray, even if I close my main browser session.

If this “convenience feature” becomes more mainstream, with Mozilla, Adobe and whoever else backing it, I believe it will lead to increased migration to Web applications, so I’m all for it.

Related posts: Read/WriteWeb, CrunchGear, Download Squad, WebProNews, CyberNet, Digital Trends, TechBlog, Compiler, RIApedia, Google Blogoscoped, Mike Chambers, The Universal Desktop, Jeremy’s Blog, Mashable!

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Gmail IMAP and Microsoft’s Desktop Push

You’ll have to appreciate the irony of this TechMeme screenshot:

Microsoft’s Jeff Raiker defended desktop applications, mocking of Google for “backtrack(ing) on what we’ve been saying and to offer things like Gears in order to be able to be offline and or take advantage of global computing power”, reports Infoworld.

As if to support Raiker’s statement, just minutes earlier the hot item on TechMeme was Google’s Gmail offering IMAP. Yes, it’s there, if you don’t see it in your gmail account, log out and come back again.

Unlike POP access, which is basically a dumb download, IMAP synchronizes your mail folders (not just the Inbox) with your online account, and your read/unread status..etc are maintained both in the desktop client and online. In fact IMAP is an easy way to sync several desktop clients on multiple machines. (Note: Gmail does not have folders, but I assume labels would take their place – assume only, since I no longer use desktop email software)

Where’s the irony here? IMAP is clearly beneficial only if you use a desktop email client* with your gmail account, which is exactly Raiker’s point. And a bit of a personal irony: for over a decade I was a faithful Outlook user, mocking my friends who used web-based email (typically Yahoo) for their personal accounts. How could they live with such a dumb, slow service?

Well, times change: Outlook grew fat and slow, it needs a cornucopia of software fighting for CPU and memory: virus scanner, desktop search (Copernic), backup (Mozy), sync with other desktops (Foldershare), and who knows what else, all of which need updates that tend to fail … what a nightmare! I ditched the desktop and have never been more productive! I’m using Gmail natively, on the Web, and am quite happy with it, so IMAP means nothing to me. (Apparently I’m not alone, as evidenced by the 5-600 readers my client to Gmail migration guide written half a year ago is still getting every day). For all other productivity needs I use the Zoho Suite. Incidentally, little birdies are singing that Zoho Writer will soon have offline edit capabilitiessmile_wink.

Seamless online/offline computing, as it should be.

*Update (10/24). This post was my quick first reaction late last night, when the news first hit (in fact before it became official news). As Marc Orchant correctly points out, IMAP may very well be useful even if you don’t use a desktop email client, as it makes it really easy to use the client software on your mobile devices, and still have a sync’d Gmail on the Web.

Update #2, (10/24): Simplified Guide to Importing All Your Archive Email Into Gmail

Related posts: Download Squad, CyberNet, Mashable!, Infoworld, Zoho Blog, TechCrunch, ParisLemon, Moonwatcher, Ars Technica, Good Morning Silicon Valley,

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Office 2.0: Zoho Announces Business Edition

When Zoho introduced their first Web application a year and a half ago, they were little known, and nobody cared about their business model. But then something unusual happened: they kept on pumping out new applications every few weeks or so, and soon became the #2 (or by some count #1) force in the Web application space. While some of their competitors went out of business, others got acquired, others charge for their offering, Zoho continues to offer their services for free. Needless to say the business model comes up a lot more often nowadays.

Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu made it clear he is in for a Marathon, not a sprint, and he knows what he’s talking about: in the past decade he has already built a solid, profitable company, Adventnet, whose financial stability allows him to play in the SaaS market. He pledged to always offer most of his products free to individuals, yet he hinted there would be a revenue-generating business version of Zoho Services some day. But his priority was to build a solid set of services first, without having to rush to revenue. Until recently the emphasis was on perfecting the individual products (15 of them), and in the past few months Zoho started to focus on integrating them. Zoho Notebook, although in “individual” product, was a major milestone as it tightly integrated several other offerings: document editing, presentations, spreadsheets, communication, collaboration. The recently announced Zoho Start page was the first step in pulling several existing products together in a home base.

As a next logical step, this morning at the Office 2.0 Conference Zoho Business Edition will be introduced. The next two slides will help understand the segmentation between Zoho Personal and Business editions.

Personal is essentially the already existing set of services, with a few (those with gray background) additional ones still in private beta: Mail, Calendar, Tasks, Contacts. It’s interesting to note that these “new” services have already been on the Zoho palette for quite a while, but they were offered as part of Zoho Virtual Office, a downloadable Outlook-like product – they are now being rearchitected as a Web service. All of these services are, and continue to be offered free. The services in the right box, Meeting, Projects, Creator and CRM also have a free level, but they will have a premium, for-free version as well.

The next slide shows Zoho Business, essentially the same as Personal, with an added infrastructure layer added to manage ones domains, locations, users, groups, and also offering multiple levels of security, backup and enhanced support. Zoho Business is currently in private beta.

Despite recent speculation, this is not Zoho’s entrance to the Enterprise market.

Zoho Business is primarily meant for the SMB / SME segment (small businesses). That is not to say that the core Zoho applications would not be “enterprise ready” (they have large corporate accounts in Japan), but it’s not what they focus on for now. Anyone who follows Zoho will know that they are obsessed with cutting out fat: it’s a lean, efficient operation. The last thing Sridhar wants is to hire an expensive sales force, which is still the way to enter the Enterprise. Case in point: mighty Google themselves- I’ve shared my impressions of a Google Enterprise presentation, where I felt I was teleported to an Oracle or IBM Sales Show from the 90’s. Let them be the evangelists, and wait for the currently SMB services emerge in the Enterprise.

(Disclosure: I am an Advisor to Zoho)

Related posts: Between the Lines, /Message, Web Strategy, Centernetworks, Mashable, Read/WriteWeb, Zoho Blogs, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Webware.com,

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Zoho Start Integrates Several Applications Under the Same Hood

It’s Web Office Week at Read/WriteWeb, and Richard opens with a historical overview of Web Office developments starting from 2005. Like him, I was an early user of Writely, which later became Google Docs – but soon after Writely there were several other point applications, and by March 2006 I felt I was “losing the race” – too many apps, hard to keep track, my data fragmented in million places. The solution came a few months later:

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.

Fast-forward a good year, and today we’re seeing the launch of Zoho Start, which brings several Zoho Apps under a single page. (You’d think with the Office 2.0 Conference just a week away they’d reserve announcements for the conference – I suppose this means there is still enough ammunition for next weekWink).

For now Zoho Start includes your text documents (Writer), spreadsheets (Sheet) and presentations (Show). You can organize your information across document types into folders and tag them (mouse over any item and a pull-down arrow appears, with action items including tagging). Of course you can filter to only view spreadsheets or presentations, text documents, or All. Search finds documents independent of type, too, and this will be particularly important as Zoho continues to integrate more applications into the Start page, eventually including Mail, too. The Zoho Apps icon in the upper right corner provides access to other applications, including those not (yet) integrated into Start.

You can switch between list view (above) to box view, which segments your documents into separate boxes based on the application that created them. For appearance I prefer this view, and it works well with relatively few applications and documents.

I do believe that as one’s online document depository grows, lists, boxes, browsing titles become less and less helpful. We’ll create and store information online, and the document format, the application used to record our thoughts becomes less relevant. It’s just digital information findable by using search, clicking on tags, or organizing them into logical folders. I could also see the flow of textual information organized into a wiki, extended by spreadsheet and presentation capabilities.

Zoho Start will continue to be improved. Eventually I envision Mail, Calendar, Task abilities added, and at that point a more dynamic, time and task-focused view might be appropriate, with information “buried” in docs, sheets, presentations..etc “hiding” under the cover yet easy to pull up by search.

(Disclosure: I’m an Advisor to Zoho)

Related posts: Read/WriteWeb, Mashable, CenterNetworks, Wired, Blognation, Between the Lines, Webware, CyberNet News, Zooomr, Insider Chatter, Lifehacker.

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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.

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Romulan Attack Because of Microsoft Office

The Romulans attack the Federation for they can’t read the Peace Treaty sent to them in Word 2307 format… they only have Word 2303. A hilarious cartoon by Geek and Poke. Joke? Perhaps … or not.

Yesterday I attended a (so-called) Enterprise 3.0 event hosted by the MIT Club of Northern California. So-called, as nobody really used the term, other than the moderator, Sramana Mitra. The panelists politely put the title on their slides, and then distanced themselves from the concept, Google’s Jonathan Rochelle being most outspoken: “we did not even get to Enterprise 2.0, why 3.0 now?” (Update: read JR’s follow-up post).

That said, it was an interesting event, clearly focused on Software as a Service (SaaS). 3 of the 4 presenters came with PowerPoint decks – kudos to Microsoft’s Cliff Reeves who only had 1 slide. In the spirit of eating one’s own dogfood JR’s “presentation” was a public Google Spreadsheet.

Next came Captain Picard Sramana: her slides suffered the same faith the Federation’s Peace Treaty did: they were created in a different version, and could not be opened on the presenters’s laptop. Host Nicolas Saint-Arnaud made a heroic effort trying to download a converter, but failed, so Sramana could not show her presentation. This happened in a room discussing SaaS where at least two (well, one and a half) online presentation tools were represented: Google’s future presentation app by Jonathan, and the existing Zoho Show by Sridhar. With a Web 2.0 tool, there s no dependency on having the correct software version on your machine, there are no updates, patches (in fact there are, managed behind-the-scenes by the service provider) – your slides (data) are instantly available anywhere, anytime.

I somewhat wonder if this was an intentional ploy on Sramana’s behalf: after all we can talk all we want about the benefits of working on the Web, nothing delivers a punchline as forcefully as a publicly failed download/patch… or the Romulan nukes, for that matter. (Will they still use nukes in the 24th Century?)

(Side-note to anyone delivering presentations: don’t ever try to download and apply an upgrade publicly, on a projection screen. Murphy’s Law will apply)

Update: See Sramana’s Nuggets from the event, including the slides. She says it was not a ploy… (but I may just have given her an idea ;-) )