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Zoho Creator Expands Google AppEngine’s Reach

I’ve written about Zoho Creator before – being techno-challenged myself, the key value for me (and I suppose for millions of potential users) is the ability to generate database driven situated applications without the need for any programming.   Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu made an interesting statement back in April:

In principle, it would be possible to layer Zoho Creator on top of Google App Engine  on top of Amazon EC2.

Well, it’s no longer just in principle: today Zoho announced the ability to use Zoho Creator to generate applications which are then deployed on Google’s AppEngine.  Here’s a short video explaining the process:

The video focuses mostly on the process of how to create an app, convert it from Zoho’s own Deluge scripting environment to Python, then installing it on the Google AppEngine.  You will get more detailed explanation elsewhere, let me just focus on why I find this an important step.

Zoho essentially expands Google’s reach, making it available to users without programming skills.  It’s a perfect marriage: Zoho brings the ability to create programs without coding in a user-friendly graphical environment, while Google brings  security for those who might worry keeping their apps and data with a smaller provider: now they can use the Zoho-generated apps in the safety of GoogLand. smile_wink.

The other important aspect is portability, and to quote Zoho’s Raju Vegesna, first they let data be free by releasing CloudSQL, and now they let your applications free.

We’ve already seen Zoho adapt Google Gears first, even before Google Apps;  this is now another example of friendly coopetition with Google.

(Disclaimer: Zoho is the exclusive Sponsor of Cloudave, my main blogging gig.)

Related posts:

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Zoho Launches Application Marketplace

Having seen the power of Zoho Creator & DB I predicted Zoho would create a Marketplace eventually. Ten days ago Information week leaked the news, we wouldn’t have to wait long – and now it’s here: the Zoho Application Marketplace.

Ever since the famous Google Chrome Comic book, the gold standard for product announcement is just that: comics. Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy the following comic video announcement:

There’s a catalogue of business applications, but if you don’t find an app you need, spec it out, and receive offers from developers. Either way the apps are owned by the developers who set their own pricing and keep 100% of the revenue.

If they don’t take a commission, then what’s in it for Zoho? Clearly, having more situated software apps will drive up subscription demand. Zoho Creator (the platform Marketplace is built on) is free up to 10 applications, and there are several price levels above that.

On day one the ‘shelves’ no doubt will not be fully stocked but Zoho hopes developers will quickly jump on the opportunity. After all there are over 100K apps used by the Creator community. Clearly not all marketable, but even less than 1% can create a lively market.

Marketplace comes on the heels of a new release, Zoho Creator 3 (see video)

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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 Forms Gain Popularity

Web forms are increasingly popular, as they provide an easy way to solicit user input, manage a database in the background, and display data in a controlled form. Typical uses are contact forms (this blog has one), surveys, signup-sheets.   Wufoo is perhaps the most popular standalone form builder, but as popular as they are, Google’s entry to the space will likely bring more visibility to Web form use cases. 

I set up a very rudimentary web form to demonstrate their use, but I am cheating: I took the data from Google Operating System and populated my database – sorry, Ionut, I don’t get anywhere close to your huge reader base.smile_wink   Please fill out the form below.

Although the form captures the time of entry, I am not displaying it below, to demonstrate that once can control the re-use of data after user entry.

You can manipulate the above data, filter it, sort it by clicking on the column headers, search the contents…etc. 

Oh… is this more than you’ve seen on the other Google forms?  And they’ve told you the lists were not embeddable?  Sorry .. I’m cheating: I’ve re-created Ionut’s  form in Zoho Creator. smile_tongue  (Disclaimer: I am an Advisor to Zoho – but I am making a point by doing this.)

 

Different people will always prefer different tools.  I don’t have any statistics, but I would assume the number of users for database-like tools (MS Access, Dabble DB, Zoho Creator & DB) is by an order of magnitude less than the number of spreadsheet users.  A lot of basic spreadsheet users don’t perform calculations, don’t use pivot tables – they just  create tables to track lists. (See my earlier rant on why JotSpot’s tracker is not a real spreadsheet).  For their sake it’s nice to be able to have simple form support inside a spreadsheet, which is what they can now get from Google.

Several reviewers of the new Google Forms were missing field verification, calculated numeric fields…etc. These features and more are supported in Zoho Creator, which in fact allows you to build mini-apps by dropping script elements, without actually coding.  Those who want more database manipulation can use Zoho DB. These are powerful applications, but which one to use when can be confusing to less technically inclined users (like yours truly).  Hence simple forms in a spreadsheet are a good idea.   But let me dream a little – here’s how I’d like to see web-based collaboration some day:

It won’t be about formats and applications – it will be about free-flowing thoughts and the data encapsulating them.  Of course there will be differences in application capabilities, but it’s entirely likely that what you can manipulate in your database application, I will access using a spreadsheet. Likewise, I may write something in a wiki, and you want to edit it in an online word processor.  It’s not a dream, we’re heading that way.  For example Zoho’s wiki and Writer apps share a basically similar editor, Zoho DB introduced pivot tables which will show up in Sheet in the near future.  I am impatient, would like to see this sharing happen faster, but have to accept the realities of how the leading Web companies work: individual products first, integration later.  But we’ll get there… to the vision of format-less web-collaboration.

Oh, and until then, Welcome Creator Mini Google Forms.smile_teeth

Related posts: Rev2.org, Download Squad, Digital Trends, Sunny Talks Tech, Webware.com, Compiler, Search Engine Roundtable, Googlified, Search Engine Journal, CenterNetworks, Google Operating System, TechCrunch, Google Blogoscoped, SEO and Tech Daily, Lifehacker, Gear Diary and Techmamas

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Death to Attachments

From Tony Hirst:

If an email comes with an attachment, then I suspect that in a large number of cases the sender is probably using the wrong medium. So for example, this morning I found in my mailbox:

Three seminar announcements with *ALL* the details in an attached word file (nothing in the body of the message). (“Please find enclosed details of our next seminar” – you know the sort of thing…)

Two newsletters as PDF attachments (they’re available on the web as well…)

Yes, I hate that… and if you’re on a slower machine, you spend the next several minutes opening different applications (Word, Excel, Acrobat), wait for the virus scan ..etc, only to wonder how than organize it all…

Here’s Tony’s solution:

So I think I may try a new mail rule:

if attachment then

  • silently delete AND
  • reply-to-sender “Please find another way of letting me see the document you sent as an enclosure – I do have a browser, you know… If the document is for commenting on by several people, try Google docs, Zoho, or Microsoft Live whatever it’s called…”

I love it… like I’ve said before, Attachments are Evil – Link, don’t Send.

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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 DB for Data Manipulation & Reporting

Impeccable timing: just days after Computerworld named Zoho Creator one of five web apps they can’t live without, Zoho DB is released today. While Creator is an application generator, DB is primarily for data manipulation, analysis and reporting. You can create a new database or import your dataset from an existing spreadsheet, be it Zoho’s own Sheet or MS Excel. The UI is instantly familiar, as it reminds us of a spreadsheet, but one with drag-and-drop goodness, allowing the user to easily analyse data, create charts, reports, which, as typical with Zoho apps you can embed in your web page or blog, and of course other Zoho Apps.

Fur deeper analysis you can create Pivot Tables with simple drag & drop. Zoho DB Supports Query Tables – tables created based on a select query from a different table. It understands queries in many SQL dialects: Oracle, SQL Server, DB2, Sybase, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Informix and ANSI SQL. This sets Zoho DB apart from the rest of the industry, and it’s made possible by leveraging another Adventnet (Zoho’s parent) product: SwisSQL. In the near future it will also allow users to import and export database schemas.

The best way to get a feel for the capabilities is to watch the video introduction, then get your hands “dirty” by diving into Zoho DB yourself.

Some of Zoho DB’s features will soon be available in Zoho’s spreadsheet application giving users a choice where they analyze their data – and of course you will be able to access the same data via applications built with Zoho Creator.

Attendees at the recent Wiki: Beauty & Beast event heard Zoho’s Raju Vegesna talk about how eventually Word processors like Zoho Writer and Wikis should morph into each other. This may sound off-topic, but it’s another hint to Zoho’s philosophy of allowing users access their data via their application of choice, no matter which other application they used to create it. It’s all about the (work) flow, not data formats.:-)

See also: TechCrunch, Read/WriteWeb, CenterNetworks, Zoho Blogs , Mashable!, Between the Lines,

Update: Ouch, Rod reveals Zoho’s most secret plans: Today – Zoho DB – Tomorrow – Zoho Beer

Update (9/6): Ask Zoho: What’s the difference between Zoho DB, Creator & Sheet?

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Lessons from the TechCrunch Wiki War

Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch Parties have become “THE EVENTS TO ATTEND” in the Valley – in fact not just in the Valley: last time around I remember participants driving up all the way from San Diego, and this time people will fly in just to be there. The last party as well as the next one this Friday both sold out within hours after the announcement, and a lot of readers felt frustrated:

  • Some felt that first-come-first-served is not fair enough with such a short notice (an hour or so)
  • Some publicly asked for special consideration to get in
  • Some proposed to pay for “tickets”
  • Just about everyone complained for the lockups in the registration wiki.

I don’t envy Mike in this situation. It’s his party, his house (well, at least for the previous events), it would be perfectly OK for him to have an invitation-only party. Yet he obviously wants to see new faces, so he opens it up to anyone, but then of course he can’t please all… This time around, for the seventh TechCrunch Party hosted by August Capital there was more than the usual rush: the registration wiki has become constantly locked up and Mike was forced to move RSVPs to comments on his blog, closing the wiki.

Mike received ample feedback on why the wiki was not the right platform to handle hundreds of almost simultaneous registrations, and several entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to announce new offerings. Central Desktop announced a free public event wiki, and since it’s a hybrid not-just-a-wiki solution, Founder and CEO Isaac Garcia claims they do not have lockup issues (they use a form with a database in the background). Zoho Creator would have been another elegant solution.

However, what almost no-one talks about is that this was not simply a technical glitch. Having been lucky enough (?) to wake up 4am the day the wiki opened I managed to register myself at exactly position #100 in the wiki, then observe the wiki-war that soon ensued. The major “sins” I witnessed were:

  • Individual users registering entire blocks (dozen or more) names
  • The same users sitting on the wiki (blocking), probably while coordinating with their buddies who else to sign up
  • Previously registered names getting deleted

One can perhaps justify registering others, although I don’t know where the reasonable limit is ( I only signed up myself), but deleting others is the absolute cardinal sin. Apparently fair play is a strange concept to some.

This raises another issue though: are these people not aware that wikis provide a perfect audit trail and what they did can easily become public? Or do they simply not care? Is getting in on the TechCrunch party worth being displayed on a virtual “hall of shame”?

This particular incident aside, I think the major learning here is the overall lack of awareness of a typical wiki’s capabilities and how to “behave” while using it. I know many who’d like the collaborative capabilities but are afraid of “chaos” and the potential lack of civility… in short a major ‘wiki war’ if they open up editing to anyone. Most wiki platforms offer technical controls to limit chaos: even consumer /community focused WetPaint introduced several security schemes in their latest updates, and enterprise wikis like Socialtext and Atlassian’s Confluence have for long had elaborate security schemes – heck, that’s why they are “enterprise”.

Just as important as the permissioning is the role of social- behavioral norms, which clearly are more common and more forceful in a corporate environment, where all wiki “contributors” work for the same company. “Ross Mayfield said that in four years of building wikis for corporations Socialtext has seen precisely 0 trolls and 0 instances of vandalism.” He also maintains a Best Practices wiki (hey, it’s the new skin!). Now, remember, it’s a wiki – you can contribute, not just read.

As for the TechCrunch Party, the guest list is currently at 738(!) and here’s a preview of who’s coming, courtesy of CustomCD.us. (who may have intended to keep this a surprise, but I found it anyway….)

Update (7/28/2007): Here’s another case of wiki “who done it”.

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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…