Traditional Spreadsheets in a Non-Traditional way

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During a chat with Gibu this evening, he raised me this question. How my recent initiative, Zoho Sheet, is positioned against Excel? Let me answer it here.

Excel is one of my favourite software. I love its usability. Perfectly designed for its intended purpose and users. But its not friendly now for internet population who want to consume lot of data from internet into their spreadsheets. Time to give it a thought. Listing here some of the shortcomings of traditional spreadsheets. For now, I refrain getting into pricing.

  • Sharing is pain. Not collaboration friendly. You cannot share it online with your friends, colleagues and clients. You might be sending it now as email attachments.
  • Built for non-internet users? Absolutely. You cannot integrate any internet information or mashup with cool web services. How about the spreadsheet integrating sales data from, your yahoo finance data, your favourite books from amazon ? This blog post has captured it nicely
  • Not web friendly. You cannot access your spreadsheet from anywhere, any browser
  • Some internet users are comfortable filling forms than spreadsheet grid. Some may be fine editing as wiki pages. Traditional spreadsheet doesn’t have option to switch between different web app views and spreadsheet view.

Our goal is to overcome such shortcomings of traditional spreadsheets, in a non-traditional way. If this sounds interesting sign up for a sneak peek of zoho sheet and take a ride on it.


Battle of Media

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The age old argument of Blogs Vs. Traditional Media. Only this time it’s from Kottke. Head over here. The fight is between Blogs/ Citizen media/ “Traditional” media and NY times. Clear winner in 6 out of 8 trials: Blogs.
Couple of days back, I remember discussing with a friend about Wikipedia. “It’s a sort of an everyday affair, looking up things in Wikipedia; traditional encyclopedia or reference material is now synonymous with dusty yellowed books in bookshelves that no one bothers to look at”. Although the argument that Kottke bothered to verify is old, it is relevant now, considering the significant increase of blogs in the blogosphere.

Approximately three years ago, when I started blogging, it was an obscure thing to do. Probably the number of blogs could be counted – or listed by a blog directory. I had to painfully explain what it was to people, who wished to know what made me sit in front of the computer always. “It’s a sort of an online journal. You can put in any content you want”. They’d then curiously ask, “But who would read it? What use is it to people?”. That is not the case anymore. Many traditional media now cite blog references – Digit, a monthly tech magazine carries the best of tech blog references. And after the Tsunami help blog and (more recently) Hurricane Katrina help blogs that were widely publicized, people do consider them seriously.

That is a healthy trend because, far from being “an online journal” where one can write about how they cleaned the cage of their pet rabbit, blogs now carry stories that appear in papers only after a couple of days. It’s become rather habitual to see someone quote from the morning paper, a story of a turtle that befriended a hippopotamus and reply with a smug look on the face, “Oh that! That appeared in ‘Boing Boing’ a couple of days back”. There is variety, and there is little room for mis-information. Most bloggers double and triple check their facts before posting them, because in the present days of what I call “Superior Search Engine Technology”, it’s impossible to lie or deliberately provide wrong information. Blog readers, clever as they are, tend to check for accuracy of the information. I was once told by a reader of mine that she thought I’d got my facts wrong and correct me. She searched prior to correcting me, and found that it was not so. Several other times, I’ve not been so lucky. People bother to find factual inaccuracies or gaping voids in arguments. I read several comments regularly where blog readers conspire to trash some poorly written posts or posts which lack content, but nevertheless are widely read.

Newspapers aren’t ready to let go easily, too. They have enabled RSS feeds for their editorials. One newspaper recently went to the extent of creating a new position – that of an “Ombudsman” whose responsibility is to try to enhance the credibility among its readership and maintain the high ethical standards involved with traditional media. However space constraints and Pointy Haired Bosses restrict the depth and the width of editorials; and so, to get an unbiased opinion of what the journalist thinks, people resort to their blogs instead – which is “Free Press” in the truest sense.

Having said those, I don’t think Blogs will “replace” traditional media altogether. Nor will they be called “alternate media” anymore. Traditional media’s reach is enviable. Several people still swear by editorials that appear in the print form. Blogs can never reach to that level. There may be a day when people start to rely upon blogs for their source of news or gossip. Then too, I don’t think people will stop their subscription of the daily paper. Even if it gets dusty and yellowed over time.

Brainstorming using Web 2.0

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Only when there is a need to do a presentation, and the resources to be used are stored at different people’s terminals, and the deadline is a few hours ahead, do I begin to love the “Share” button in Zoho Writer. I can simply give “Read and Write” permission to my friends who are a part of the team and whose computer terminals, unfortunately are separated by a great distance from mine, and wait and watch while the ideas pour in. If ever there is a group of people who’ll be most benefitted by such Web-based applications, it’ll be the student community, who unfortunately cannot all afford a laptop to carry around.

Previously, when I had to do similar kind of work, I’ll have to send the document as the text of an e-mail, for the college terminal doesn’t have MS Office installed, contrary to most domestic PC terminals, and e-mail it to myself. Then open the e-mail and do the necessary formatting and take print outs. With web-based Word Processor, it becomes a lot less clumsy. “Share’ and more specifically “Read & Write” is now (exploited and loved) by several friends of mine for various purposes – college homework and otherwise where several heads, instead of one are involved.

Office 2.0 – The evolution of office applications

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Let me try to define (my version of) Office 2.0.

Office 2.0 should offer an a la carte of collaborative applications as products/services from which users/businesses can choose from.

Key points to note in Office 2.0 are…

1. The users should be able to choose from a la carte of applications
2. The offerings should be available both as a product and as a service
3. All of these products/services should have collaboration features built-in

Let me explain each of these points….

1. a la carte of applications:
How many of us use all the components of MS Office for example that comes with just one price tag? In my case, I just use Word and a PPT. The rest like Excel etc are of no use. Even Outlook is of no use for me as I use Zoho Virtual Office. But we end up paying for the whole package which in my view is not right. For those who use all apps in office suit, probably it is worth the price tag. But for the rest of us, it is wasting money. Instead, I would prefer purchasing some other application I use – may be a Wiki.

In the next generation of Office applications, the vendor should provide a list of applications to choose from. The office suit should have apps like Word Processor, Spreadsheet, presentations viewer/builders, Messaging and Groupware, Wiki, RSS Readers, IM, CRM, Calling, Blogs etc. The list goes on. The end user should be able to select which apps he’ll need and just pay for those. This should be the model for Office 2.0 apps.

2. Product + Service Offerings:
It is not Product or Service. It should be Product and Service. Both product and service have their own advantages and disadvantages. The choice should be given to the end user to choose from either a product or a service. Ideally, it should be a product combined with a service will can offer powerful benefits.

3. Collaboration features Built-in:
Collaborative features are going to play a crucial role in the next generation office applications. This is very important that collaborative features are built into each and every application that is offered.

Office applications are no longer restricted to the ones that are defined by leading vendors in the market. Its time to redefine this.

Ismael Ghalimi has some very good posts on Office 2.0. I completely agree with him on the rules for Office 2.0.


Small Wonders

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An oddity:

With Google Suggest turned on, if “How to” is entered in the search box, the first option it suggests is “How to tie a Tie”.

Now to the post. Ajaxian carried extract from a story about Web 3.0, carrying a couple of puns and names from animation world like Chuck Jones and fantasy things like ACME invisible ink. The author is quite funny, and writing about future or emerging technologies in the manner in which he’s done it is no mean piece of writing. And it’s only essays like these that are pointers to developers “who are toiling over an AJAX- and Ruby-powered social software product”, no matter how sceptical or irritated they feel about it.

“Some small teams of sharp people—people who once, perhaps, worked for those with dimmer visions—are now following their own muses and designing smart web applications.” With each passing day, there seems to be some AJAX powered application or the other hitting the new web, I can’t agree more. It’s actually the liberty that it offers, more people are lured into it everyday. A couple of years back, when sending a batch of image files to a lot of people, was synonymous with attaching every individual file and sending them as an e-mail. And one had to see to it that it wouldn’t exceed their storage limit, which was around 4 MB. Later on, Flickr happened and made the life of a lot of people, especially those people who spend their time distributing those odd and interesting pictures a lot simpler.

I wonder if the idea of a concept such as Flickr would have been a success if a Computer Conglomerate which sells a wide variety of software packages decided to develop such an application. Flickr wouldn’t be Flickr if it were that way. It wouldn’t be human enough. As mentioned, AJAX developers will have to “determine all the things a user might do, and wireframe the blessed moments of each possibility.” All those applications that use AJAX almost understand what you want. The tagging service, for instance, tries to predict what tag you can possibly use based on previous user’s experience. Gmail sorts the e-mails and their replies in conversation view, instead of making people fish around the Inbox or Mail folders. That is the advantage of having smart people who worked previously with boring projects. They’ve made the Web almost intelligent. That, precisely is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. While Web 1.0 had answers that cater to the crowd, Web 2.0 has (or will have, in the near future) a solution that suits the individual user.

It will not be long before the Web tries to understand the possible mistakes that happen while tying a neck tie, and display a warning message in the screen that most probably it was wrong, based on the responses obtained from the previous users who tried to do it by the same method.

The Last Question

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Some good soul had posted a link to the online version of Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” & thanks to the feed I subscribe to, came across it. Haa, what a story! Makes me want to read more of Asimov, particularly his Foundation Series.

Go sample this great short story of Asimov.

IT|Redux on Zoho Sheet

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Here is a review of Zoho Sheet by Ismael Ghalimi on IT|Redux :

… I have been using the preview release for a couple of weeks and have been impressed by what it can do. I built a fairly sophisticated flight navigation log using Microsoft Excel and imported it into Zoho Websheet. The online spreadhseet was fully functional, including pretty complex mathematical formulas. The presentation was true to the original, beside the lack of support for merged cells and cell borders. But I got totally blown away when I exported the spreadsheet back to Excel: to my amazement, the exported document looked exactly like the original. …

Ismael, thanks for the great review.

And from now on, we have changed the name of our service from Zoho Websheet to Zoho Sheet, along the lines of Zoho Writer and Zoho Creator. Zoho Websheet basically consists of 3 words and is a bit difficult to pronounce when compared to Zoho Sheet.

Zoho Sheet Team