Zoho Writer 2.0: A User Interface That’s More User Friendly

writerlogoThere is very little reason to depend on a hard drive-based application for your word processing needs these days. Google Docs provides everything most users will ever need; you already have it if you have a Gmail account, and it works offline, thanks to Google Gears. Another solution, Zoho Writer, which also works offline thanks to Gears, just got a major interface overhaul in its 2.0 incarnation, and now is more poised than ever to provide a complete alternative to Office and other similar programs.

The problem with Zoho, until now, has been one of constant improvement. That may not seem like a problem at all, but when that improvement involves adding more and more features, but keeping the interface the same, it can get a little unruly. The new redesign tries to make sure Zoho doesn’t overwhelm you visually, which in turn makes it easier to work with.

oldzoho

The old Zoho Writer menu

While some liked the old UI, I found it too cluttered, because I normally like to edit in full screen, and like as little chrome as possible in my browsers. The changes to the top menu give you a bit more room, but more importantly, they group and hide a lot of commands so you aren’t left feeling crowded. The new “MenuTab” feature groups similar commands under general headings. You can access these commands either by clicking the tab, which changes the button set available on your toolbar (much like Microsoft’s “Ribbon” UI for Office) or by clicking the little arrow next to them, which opens a drop-down menu without changing your toolbar.

The new Zoho Writer 2.0 "MenuTab" interface

The new Zoho Writer 2.0 "MenuTab" interface

It makes sense, and it suits multiple tastes. You’ll be comfortable if you’re used to working with Office, or if you’re used to working with drop-down menus like you’ll find in a lot of web apps. Zoho plans to use MenuTab in all of its other applications in the future, too, so even if you don’t like it, plan on getting used to it!

I won’t go into detail about Zoho Writer, since we’ve covered it before. It’s not new, but I still love Zoho’s tabbed management of open documents. I much prefer it to Google’s opening of new browser tabs for each document, although that makes much more sense when you take into account Google Chrome’s handling of each tab as a separate process. And I still miss Google’s full-screen edit mode too much to make a permanent switch.

Still, if you’re a Zoho user, or if you tried it out before but didn’t like it because of the interface, Zoho Writer 2.0 gives you ample reason to take it out for a second spin.

Do you use Zoho Writer? What do you think of the new UI?

iWork.com: Apple Takes a Bite of the Cloud

Copying to iWork.comWith no Stevenote at this year’s Macworld, the world not only awaited Apple’s 2009 lineup with bated breath, but also the company’s inaugural Schillergram. Sadly, Apple’s announcements were widely accepted as being underwhelming, lacking the razzle-dazzle of previous Macworld keynotes; no iPods, Mac minis or iPhones, but a slew of application updates and the death of DRM for music (yay!)

Om provided a great overview and perhaps the most pertinent release for web workers was the beta launch of iWork.com, Apple’s foray into web-based office productivity applications.

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Hulu to Live-Stream NYE in Times Square

Hulu will carry its second-ever live stream on Wednesday night — that of the famous New Year’s Eve outdoor ball-dropping party in New York City’s Times Square.

You can access the stream here or just check back on the embed above. It’s probable that Hulu’s feed will be geo-blocked for viewers outside the U.S., but EarthCam is also carrying the same live feed as well as spliced-together webcam feeds from around the world.

The satellite feed comes from the Times Square Alliance and is being offered to sites and mobile operators free of charge. It starts at 10 p.m. ET, and will be hosted by Univision’s Raul “El Gordo” De Molina and actress Angélica Vale.

Previously, Hulu live-streamed the final two U.S. presidential debates in October. The site, which had 4.8 million visitors in November, mainly carries TV episodes and some movies, but it’s also bulking up its online originals and is expected to get into music videos as well.

What’s the Big Deal With BD-Live?

The Dark Knight on Blu-ray Disc

Is BD-Live the way to salvage the future of DVDs? According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, studios are hoping the technology, which adds interactive features like chat and trivia games to Blu-ray movies, will boost sagging DVD sales. A big test of that strategy will come this week, when Warner Home Video releases its first BD-Live movie, The Dark Knight.

Warner Bros. is heavily promoting The Dark Knight‘s interactive features, suggesting that viewers, for example, “send invitations for screenings at a specified time and chat with each other as the movie plays.”

While the studio is using BD-Live features to promote The Dark Knight, BD-Live backers are undoubtedly hoping that the sheer popularity of The Dark Knight turns the spotlight to the capabilities of the technology itself.

And BD-Live, it seems, could use a boost. Read More about What’s the Big Deal With BD-Live?

Ulteo Delivers Online Productivity Apps and Virtual Desktops

In case you haven’t tried it yet, the recently released OpenOffice 3.0 suite of free, open source productivity applications has a lot of improvements over previous versions, especially for Mac users. Recently, I’ve been working with the free, online-hosted versions of the applications available through Ulteo. Many users of Zoho’s and Google’s online hosted applications should look into these, as the features are different, and in some cases go beyond what Google and Zoho provide.

Ulteo offers tiered subscriptions for using the applications but there is a free option that comes with 1GB of online storage space for your documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more.
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Zoho Status: All Hosted App Providers Should Take a Lesson

Among the providers of online hosted applications that appeal to web workers, I don’t know of any players who provide quite as diversified sets of tools as Google and Zoho. As noted at Mashable, Zoho has now launched a new service called Zoho Status, designed to show uptime and performance metrics for all of Zoho’s individual applications.

The metrics Zoho provides are quite detailed. After taking a look, I’d say that all applications hosted online could benefit from this level of kimono-opening.
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Zoho Mail Goes Offline & Mobile

As Google deepened its support for offline access via IMAP this week, Zoho, its closest competitor in the web office space, was publicly unveiling its own support for offline and access, ironically using Google’s own Gears platform.

Curiously Zoho decided that to bring users’ mailboxes offline, Gears was a better technological platform for offline access than the IMAP protocol; though we’re assured IMAP is coming.

Regardless, the offline features seem pretty comprehensive despite currently being restricted to Gears for Firefox and Internet Explorer and with most online features being available offline – messages, images & attachments are optionally available and a clever connectivity detection feature automatically determines whether a network is visible, flipping between offline and online modes as appropriate, with offline messages queued for later deliver when connectivity becomes available.

A Gears configuration dialog allows users to select the number of messages to download initially, how many Sent Items should be stored for offline access.

Finally, though Zoho is pitching mobile access alongside offline support, in reality Zoho Mail is currently only optimised for the iPhone.

Though the offline support appears to work well enough – as do other Gears-enabled services such as Google Reader – mainstream offline access seems a little too fragmented for comfort.

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Zoho Adds Sharing

ScreenshotWe’ve covered a great many Zoho services over the years; they continue to have one of the most diverse software-as-a-service offerings. Their latest addition is Zoho Share, which brings both file storage and file sharing into play. If you’ve already got Zoho credentials from another application, you can use them to log in to Zoho Share. When you get there, you’ll find a public file-sharing site, showing you content that other people have uploaded. But you’ll also find a private “My Area” tab, which lets you upload and manage your own documents. You can choose to keep these documents private, or make them public by default.

Zoho share includes embedded viewers for the various file types it supports: Zoho’s own files (which you can easily click through to edit in their home applications), PDFs, older Microsoft documents, ODT, CSV, and a few others. Files are limited to 3MB, and you can select from a variety of Creative Commons licenses for each file you upload (including restrictive licenses that preserve your rights on private documents). Like the other commodity Zoho services, Zoho Share is free.

Who Wins: Verizon FiOS vs AT&T U-Verse

Verizon recently launched its FiOS TV and fiber-based broadband service in New York City, The New York Times is taking stock of the service, which seems to be doing well. Verizon’s $23 billion investment into FiOS wasn’t viewed kindly, and Wall Street viewed AT&T’s cheaper U-Verse plan as more practical and affordable.

Despite such early shellacking on Wall Street, the company’s decision to go with the more expensive fiber is proving to be smarter, even though it is still not clear if (and when) Verizon is going to start making big money on its bet.

“If I were an auto dealer and I wanted to give people a Maserati for the price of a Volkswagen, I’d have some seriously happy customers,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. “My problem would be whether I could earn a decent return doing it.”

Moffet estimates that the company is going to lose about $6 billion on FiOS all told. Others feel that 20 percent buy-in from potential customers makes it profitable. Wall Street seems to have warmed up to the Verizon story, impressed perhaps by its recent growth, especially when stacked up against AT&T.

My view is that all U.S. phone companies are in trouble because of major shifts that are going on in the industry. Verizon, with FiOS, at least has an offering that addresses the needs of the future broadband users. Whether they make money on it, who knows.

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