Web Apps & Collaboration: The Big Picture

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Collaboration and Web Apps: The Big Picture

Previously, I talked about Collaboration being one of the key features of web applications. In this post, I want expand more on that point.

I am sure all of us agree that the key advantage of web based applications is Collaboration. There are other advantages like mobility etc. But thats for another post. Lets look at how collaboration is evolving in online applications. Before that let us look at communication applications first and later we shall talk about their role in collaboration.

Communication Apps:

Today we use different types of communication tools on a daily basis. These tools include Discussion Forums, Email, IM, Audio Conferencing, Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing etc. Some of these tools are used along with others for better/effective communication. Each of these communication tools are intrusive than the other. Forums are less intrusive than Email which is less intrusive than IM which is less intrusive than Audio Conf etc.

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Collaboration Tools:

With the advent of web applications we have seen a different type of collaboration with ‘Collaborative Editing’ on content where multiple users can work on the same application/content at the same time seeing each other’s changes immediately. In this case, all users are (literally) on the same page working on the content making collaboration effective with out the hassle of emailing attachments and managing versions.

These ‘Collaborative Editing’ and ‘Virtual Whiteboard’ type of functionalities in web applications is just the stepping stone for more broader and deeper integration. These features mark a significant change in the way we work. Instead of emailing attachments, we email a link (Remember, Document is a URL). The communication tools like Email, IM etc are used for the right purpose – to communicate the changes and not for pushing the content.

Collaboration + Communication Tools

What we will see next is a combination of collaboration and communication tools. Each of the communication tools I mentioned will be integrated into web applications that focus on collaboration. A user might prefer one type of communication than the other. So it is important for web apps to provide different types of communication tools for effective collaboration.

In fact we already see this happening in our own applications. Email is integrated into Zoho Writer where you can email a document (selecting a format) directly from the application.

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Similarly, Zoho Chat is integrated into Writer/Sheet/Show/Notebook etc enabling instant communication.

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With the recent addition of Comments feature in Zoho Writer, a mini discussion forum is integrated to discuss the comments…and then in Zoho Notebook, we have integrated Skype for audio and video communication. You’ll see other communication tools eventually integrate into such web applications.

We certainly see this as the direction web applications will evolve integrating different types of communications in multiple ways. Instead of content revolving around communication tools, the communication tools will now revolve the content.


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Do Your Presentations with Zoho Show

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Owen and Jutta have used Zoho Show for making their presentations in the League of Worlds (LoW) conference. Owen writes about the experience :

My slide show was created in Zoho, and I presented it from there when I did my turn. Two interesting points emerged. Firstly nobody, except those people who already knew about Zoho, noticed that I wasn’t using Powerpoint. In other words it performed perfectly, despite the fact that I was using a wireless connection. Secondly, several presenters have had difficulty with their slides as they moved them from computer to computer. Jutta and I did not have this problem, because our slides lived in the cloud the whole time.

The presentations – Owen’s and Jutta’s.

Ask Zoho: Why Don’t You Charge Business Users Yet?

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This question comes up surprisingly often both from end users as well as partners. On reflection, it is easy to see why: real business users want to see a viable business model before they commit to a supplier. They don’t want to entrust their data to a company whose business model is unclear.

First a note of clarification: I am talking about business use here, not personal use. As we have reiterated many, many times before, personal use is free and will remain free. The best “marketing” for us is done by the personal user who is thrilled with what she sees and spreads the word. And we have a lot of fans who work for major companies, and while there is not a chance that they can use Zoho through their organization (yet!), they love the flexibility it brings to them in their personal capacity.

Now, we do charge for two Zoho services today: Zoho CRM & Zoho Projects. They both start with a free edition, and then scale up when the needs of the customer expands. I am happy to say the response has been tremendous for both services. Therein lies the answer to why we haven’t charged for other services. We still have our work cut out to ensure that other Zoho services reach that state of maturity where a business user can get their work done on Zoho, without thinking about Zoho itself. That is my definition of maturity of a technology: it gets out of the way.

While at some level this goal represents an unrealizable Platonic ideal, we have to have a reasonable enough approximation of it before we declare it worth charging for. In each of our existing services, major updates are in the works which I believe will take us past that goal. When is it likely to happen? Predicting ship dates in software development is akin to astrology – with due apologies to astrologers everywhere, for comparing them to software project managers – but I think end of 2007 looks reasonable.

For those who worry about the business model of Zoho, I would point to the business model of AdventNet, the company behind Zoho. AdventNet offers a lot of free products – in fact, every product comes with a fairly generous free edition. In the beginning, those free editions “lose potential revenue”, in sales jargon – my sales people always hate me when I propose “free”. But over time, the benefits start to accumulate, and the product becomes profitable at lower prices to the customer and lower cost of operations to us. Is that just theory? AdventNet has been in business 11 years now, we have tens of thousands of paying customers (and millions of free users!); AdventNet’s profit is funding Zoho, so we must be doing something right!

Still, why is taking so long? Simple reason: while some companies pursue a product strategy founded on minimalism (which is a valid strategy and has its appeal), our philosophy is to offer a full-featured product suite, satisfying that demanding user. That takes time.

You Know You Have Arrived When …

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… people take potshots at you with no basis in fact at all. It sure feels good for Zoho to be the poster-child for what “ails” Web 2.0. To quote from a Wired interview with the Uncov blogger Ted Dziuba:

Wired: How do you personally differentiate between what’s worthy and what isn’t?

TD: You know you’re a bullshit company when your core technology is Ajax. If the business is every widget under the sun conglomerated into this giant application, there’s no real technology there. There’s no noteworthy computer-science problem being solved. The Ajax stuff is pre-written. You just have to go to the libraries and put it all together.

When Gmail came out — and Gmail is a pretty kick-ass product — it was like, “Ha! Ajax for dynamic web apps! We can use it for everything!” So now you have companies like Zoho, for example. Their sole goal is to take every desktop app that ever existed and reimplement it in Ajax with no added features or functionality. It irritates me as an engineer that companies with no engineering merit, first off, are getting funded and, second off, are getting bought out.

OK, where do I begin? On the “irritation about getting funded”, a nano-second worth of research (as in this Google search) would have shown that Zoho is part of AdventNet, a company that has a 11 year history of profitable organic growth. As in, cash-flow positive.

No added features or functionality? No engineering merit? Ted should go out some more. I bet he has never heard of Zoho Creator. And the last time I checked you could not do simultaneous real time collaborative editing in MS Word. And did I mention Zoho automatically keeps versions of your documents? This is not to say that we offer every feature in MS Office, but we do offer enough differentiated value that hundreds of thousands of users find us useful.

I am actually gratified Ted picked Zoho as the example here. There has never been a technology revolution without its share of skeptics and cynics. I bet 25 years ago, Ted would have insisted that all this new-fangled PC thing was a bubble, and nothing will ever hold a candle to the mainframe. We need people like him, to keep us all honest.

Now, I have to admit that I believe we are in a bit of a mini-bubble in web 2.0 . Just as the mega-bubble of the late 90′s produced its share of real companies along with a lot of fluff, this mini-bubble has both good stuff and bad. The market will determine who survives and who disappears, and without telling you where I think Zoho will be (you can guess ;-)) I can say that AdventNet was very strongly exposed to the previous bubble, being a major supplier to the optical networking companies of that era, of which there were, like, 200 in silicon valley alone. I suppose we could definitively say we survived that bubble – without any external funding whatever. The engineering resources that were working on optical networking software ended up doing all kinds of cool stuff, one part of which is Zoho.

Trust us, we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t have the money to fund it (there are no sugar-daddies here!), and if we didn’t believe there is a viable long term business model here. Anyway, thanks Ted; we still love you for remembering Zoho!

Update: After I made this post, I came across a TechCrunch post on Yossi Vardi. I was very fortunate to meet Yossi at the TechCrunch40 event – he is a truly inspiring man; there is a certain basic human quality about him that drew people like a magnet. He gave his time liberally. During the panel discussion, Yossi quoted a speech of Theodore Roosevelt which I found appropriate in this context:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

‘Nuff Said.

Ask Zoho: New Products vs Updates to Existing Products

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Whenever we launch a new service in Zoho  – we don’t actually do it that often, only once every couple of months, really :-) – one question that comes up is “Why are you launching a new service instead of improving what’s already there?” It is a fair question, and sometimes when a user is waiting for an update from, say, Zoho Writer or Zoho CRM, and sees Zoho DB launched, it causes them to go “Hmm, have these guys forgotten their existing products?”

Well, here is the answer. Each Zoho service has its own dedicated engineering team, working on its own schedule. It is not easy to just add people to speed up the schedule. Beyond a point,  adding engineering resources to a team won’t make the development go faster; in fact, it could well make it go slower. There is a certain intrinsic pace to software development, which is a function of a) the requirements b) the available technology of the day  c) the skills of the development team and finally d) the size of the development team. Whether or not adding people helps increase the pace crucially depends on whether the workload can be partitioned among multiple developers. A lot of software tasks are not readily partitioned.

The second reason is that as hard as we try, updates don’t happen like clockwork, but instead follow the pattern of lulls followed by bursts. Just as an example, check out this page listing the updates in Zoho Sheet. As you can see, there have been 5 updates in the last 2 months, but that flurry of updates came after a 2 month lull. That lull actually explains the flurry – there were multiple features the team was working on, but it took a while for those to converge. They all converged within a few weeks of each other, leading to the surge of updates in Zoho Sheet.  You will see a similar pattern in any of our products – so if you see a period of lull, that most likely means a series of updates is coming. There is another inherent feature of software development; some important features may be easy to get done, while some others may suck a lot of development effort. Alas, there is often no way to know the difference ahead of time. A relatively simple feature (or what is thought to be a simple feature) may run into a critical browser bug (for example) that takes several days, sometimes even weeks, of work-arounds and testing, something that is impossible to account for in any conventional project management methodology.

Finally, there is the attention effect. New product releases get publicity, while updates to existing products tend not to get noticed that often. So if you are keeping score by what you hear about Zoho from external sources, you are likely to conclude that all we do is launch new products! But rest assured – each of our products has a dedicated team, working hard to bring you better functionality and a more refined user experience.

Do your Personal Finance with Zoho Sheet

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Ranjan at Personal Finance 2.01 has a nice post on how to manage your personal finance using Zoho Sheet. A set of spreadsheets from his post that can assist you with your finance planning :

Thanks, Ranjan! Readers, do tell us how you are using Zoho Sheet. We (and that includes all of Zoho Sheet’s users!) are all ears.