Sunday, December 14, 2008

Day 30: The Google Apps Experiment in Summary

Well, it's over. The thirty days have passed and I'm still alive. It wasn't even that difficult, really. Sure, I felt pangs of desire for desktop applications, but I really believe that had more to do with working on a full desktop than anything -- it was like going on a diet with a cheesecake staring you in the face every time you open the fridge. I'm sure that I would have been fine had I been on a system without local applications.

I started with a set of rules that prioritized Google's apps. Then I tried to massage iGoogle into being my main page (later, I even tried to copy the Gnome menu structure). It didn't work very well. I prefer having GMail open with various labs in the margins. I had to figure out how to get past problems with picture editing and taking basic screenshots.

Looking back on the last month, I can pretty easily identify the pros and cons of living on-line.


Added features every week: Google added so many features during the month that I'm not really sure I can get them all. The list of what I can remember and/or look up is:
  • Voice and Video in GMail Chat -- Not available yet on Linux. This is probably more due to Flash's failure to work with V4L v.2 than anything under Google's control.
  • Google Docs and Calendar in Gmail via Labs: I think this may have gone live just before I started my experiment, but I'm not sure, and it's such a boost to my workflow in GMail that I didn't want to leave it off of the list.
  • Task in Gmail via Labs: I spent half of two posts talking about how to get this functionality before it was added last week.
  • SMS in GMail Chat: I can't use this since I don't live in a covered area.
  • GMail Themes: I immediately disabled Better Gmail 2 and chose a tabbed-looking theme.
  • Redesigned and Streamlined Reader Interface: This is nice, but I didn't hate the old one that much.
  • Calendar Sync with Outlook: I don't use Outlook. I'm sure this is great for a large number of people, though, and will help Google's corporate adoption.
  • Snooze reminders on your desktop with Google Talk, Labs Edition: This is Windows only.
  • Holiday Docs Templates: I'm not into the holidays much, but there will be a lot of people who can now send invitations or cards through Docs.
  • Forms Templates: I haven't used Forms yet, but I plan to get into it later, and this will be a big help for me since this culture is so oriented toward "cute."
  • Improved Sharing in Picasa Web: I don't have any real private albums now, anyway.
  • Widescreen by default in YouTube: Someone cares, I guess.
  • SearchWiki: This and the Search Labs (by date, etc.) are great tools if you search for similar terms all the time.
  • PDF Viewer for GMail and Docs: Got to love opening the PDF in GMail.
Some of these don't affect me at all (Outlook sync, for instance), but some solve my problem of how to get rid of local apps (PDF viewer). Overall, the pace of change is amazing, and there are so many optional labs that the experience is quite customizable.

No sync'ing worries: I never had a problem with a mising or outdated file. Not once in the whole month. That's pretty amazing since I forget stuff all the time. Because I'd given up all my privacy, I could search my work web history from home and continue without a hitch. Google Toolbar kept my bookmarks for use in my various locations.

Integration was pretty good: As I mentioned in my comparison of Google Apps vs. Zoho, Google's integration could be better, but everything still works together quite well. I'm able to convert e-mails to tasks or events. Sites can insert documents into pages, and the pages are updated when the documents are edited. It all works well enough, though I'd like to see better integration in iGoogle and a more consistent interface.


Privacy: In order to get any real benefit from going on-line, I had to give up a lot of privacy, which was really hard for me with my background. I don't like to give people access to my information. I don't let guests use my desktop log-in, even if there's nothing to find. Really, though, I trust that Google is large enough that they're not poring through my information and aren't really interested in anything I have to say.

Limitations: There are a lot of things that you can't do or which are significantly harder when you are using on-line applications. Photo editing is hard. The free editors were really limited. I'm sure that a subscription editor would have had more functionality (, but I didn't want to subscribe for just a month. I'm not a big gamer, and I tend to use my PS when I do game, but I still found myself playing a lot of sudoku this month.

The desktop apps that I don't want to do without are:
  • Photo editor (The Gimp),
  • Desktop Search (Deskbar),
  • Music player (Rhythmbox),
  • Movie player (Totem), and
  • Virtual Machine (VirtualBox).
Honestly, that's not very many. I could do without the movie player by using a FF plugin, and I could replace desktop search with the Google Toolbar if I didn't have any local files. I don't see myself giving up the photo editor or VM ever, and the music player would need to be a sophisticated web app mimicing RB's interface. On the subject of music, though, I did find some new and great Jamendo bands this month.

Remote Files
None of my files are local. In some situations, this isn't such a big deal. The ones (like documents) that don't lose fidelity can be sync'ed using Conduit. Videos and photos in Youtube, Picasa, Flickr, and Facebook don't survive the trip well, though. I'm sure that this can be gotten around using premium services, though.

Internet Access
When the web is down, you don't work. Google Gears takes care of quite a bit of this problem, but it's not used in every part of Google Apps yet. For some people, this will be a huge issue. I live in an area with dependable, high-speed Internet.

While I won't quite say that the last nail is in the coffin of the desktop, it's not that far away. Gamers, designers, and developers will never move off of the local desktop, though, I'm sure. People who use a single computer get much from moving on-line.

There are a lot of benefits to being in "the cloud," and I'd encourage you to try it for a while to see how it can help you.

Note: I'l repeat this experiment in February with Zoho instead of Google in order to compare the two services. If anyone has a suggestion for me, please leave a comment and I'll try the web app/suite out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Day 22: Recreating the Applications Menu in iGoogle Using Webapps and Gadgets

It's day 22 with no desktop applications but a browser and a file manager, and I'm doing OK. Not great. Fine. I'm going to run through how to set up your new "desktop" to run the common applications you'd have in your old desktop. I'm going to pretty much run down the Debian Gnome menu point by point, so this should work for Ubuntu or Fedora, as well.

Accessories: First, create the Accessories tab in iGoogle.

  • Archive manager: Use Wobzip to handle compressed files.
  • Calculator: Add the Google Dual-Mode Calculator to iGoogle
  • Dictionary: Add the Oxford English Dictionary to iGoogle.
  • Search (Beagle / Tracker): Install the Google Toolbar for Firefox 3. Seriously consider the version 5 Beta. This won't search your local files, but we will have as few of those as possible, anyway. Add some on your iGoogle page.
  • Screenshot: Install the Dashblog FF3 extension.
  • Text editor: Use EditPad or EtherPad. No, they don't support any highlighting or anything programming-related. You wanted to program on line? Are you insane?
  • Notes (Tomboy or GNotes): Add Sticky Notes or Google Notebook to iGoogle.
Games: Add a Games tab in iGoogle. Google will add Hangman, Sudoku, Pac Man, hte NYT crossword puzzle, and Flood It! for you automatically.

Graphics: Add a Graphics tab to iGoogle.

  • Photo manager: Use Picasa Web and install the AddtoPicasa FF3 extension. Add Picasa Widget to your iGoogle Graphics tab.
  • Bitmap editor (Gimp): For screenshots, Dashblog offers some simple editing. For photos, use Picnik -- you don't need an account to work with your Picasa Web photos.
  • Vector editor (Draw or Inkscape): Use ZCubes. Do not try to install the extension for it -- it requires IETab.
Internet: Add an Internet tab to iGoogle. Google will automatically include junk like your IP address. Delete these gadgets.

  • Instant messaging: Use Gtalk in the GMail interface, the GTalk sidebar for iGoogle, the GTalk gadget for iGoogle. Use an iGoogle multi-chat gadget or Meebo for other networks.
  • Feed reader: Use Google Reader and the iGoogle gadget.
  • IRC: Use the Mibbit IRC Chat gadget for iGoogle.
  • VOIP: No video love for you. Flash doesn't support webcams well on Linux. There are some Skype options available for iGoogle, but they appear to be Windows only. Tringme has a Flash SIP phone which you can use instead of Ekiga, but you'll need a Tringme account.
Office: Add an Office tab to iGoogle. Google will add Weather, ToDo, Calendar, Wikipedia, and Office Quote to your tab automatically. Delete Office Quote and Wikipedia.

  • Mail: Use GMail. Add the GMail gadget to iGoogle.
  • Calendar: This is already added by default.
  • Task manager: You can use the anemic ToDo list, use GMail to handle it with tags and stars, or you can add the Remember the Milk gadget.
  • Project management: There's no really good choice for this. You could use Zoho's project manager, but then you'd probably be using Zoho for the start page and apps instead of iGoogle, wouldn't you. I thought so. Sites is supposedly intended to be used for project management, but it is so unlike other project management software that this seems far-fetched. You can make the effort, though.
  • Word Processor: Use Google Docs (previously Writely) and add the Docs Gadget (or full-screen version)to iGoogle.
  • Spreadsheet: Use Google Spreadsheets. Thegadget is already added for you along with Docs.
  • Database: You have two choices here, neither of them good. One -- use Forms for Google Spreadsheets to create a simple, single sheet database. Two -- use Google Base. Someone claims you can use a mash-up.
Sound and Video: Add a Sound and Video tab to iGoogle.

  • Movie player: Oviously, you'll add the Official Google Video Gadget to iGoogle. Install an embedded video player plug-in into Firefox. In your file manager, set videos to open in FF.
  • Music Player: Obviously, having Totem or MPlayer embedded will allow you to play songs and playlists locally, but you can also add the Yahoo Music gadget, and the Ultimate LastFM gadget (edit settings to put in your username). I use the Jamendo website a lot, but there are no gadgets for Linux.
  • Sound recorder: I don't have a solution for this.
  • CD extractor: Hint, it involves P2P. If you have the CD, go for it.
The last thing to do is to delete the default Hoome tab in iGoogle. Now you have an application menu in iGoogle.

Well, that's the list. I've adjusted my iGoogle page to work this way, and I'll use it for the next week to see if it is acceptable.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Day 20: Google vs. Zoho, Part 2

In the first part of this comparison, I hit the major pieces of the groupware suite -- e-mail, calendar, word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. I'll be covering some of the less-used applications next.


Google's Chat

Zoho's Chat

Both suites claim to offer IM in the e-mail windows. GTalk offers text, voice, and video (not available on Linux). I have zero on-line contacts, though, so I can't test Zoho. GTalk can chat with anyone with a GMail account, on a Jabber server, or on AOL. Zoho, on the other hand, only chats with Zoho, which is fine for business, but doesn't help me much. Zoho doesn't offer voice video in chat, but it has a separate meeting application for that.

Task management

 Zoho Gantt Chart

As I mentioned in a previous post, Google doesn't really have task management, which is a killer for some people, though a workaround can be made using GMail or hooking up to Remember the Milk. Zoho's tasks application allows defining priority, due date, status, and the other usual fields, but it also offers assigning tasks to others. This emphasizes the fact that Zoho is business oriented while Google Apps is mostly for personal use.


Zoho Notebook
Google Notebook
Both suites offer notebooks that can clip information from various websites and from within the suites. Zoho offers a publication option once the whole thing has been organized. I don't really see why I'd use that instead of the wiki application, though.


Google Sites Wiki

Zoho Wiki

Google is phasing out the cripple Pages and betting the farm on Sites. Sites is really nice and offers a lot of fuctionality with an easy-to-use interface. Pages can be of different types emulating a download page or even a blog. Both offer WYSIWYG editors, but Sites is more of a total website solution, while Zoho Wiki limits itself to traditional wiki-like functions.


Zoho Meeting

Zoho has a version of Meetings for the free version, but it is limited to one other participant (the website says one participant, but I'm going to assume it means two). More than that will cost a monthly fee. The meeting software offers all the normal collaboration solution options like chat, voice, video, and desktop sharing (Windows only), but it also offers the participants the opportunity to share their desktops and has a browser plug-in to make everything easy. The browser plug-in seems perfect for support desks.

Google, on the other hand, doesn't offer a dedicated meeting application. The chat module can do group chat, voice and video, but can't share the desktop.

Shared Links

Both Google Bookmarks and Zoho Links offer bookmarking functionality with the option of sharing, but Bookmarks can be integrated into the browser using Google Toolbar. This makes the application much more useful.

Start Page

Zoho Desktop


Zoho operates in a single interface, so it's alread somewhat of a start page itself, but it has a module called "Desktop," which gives a quick overview of meetings, tasks, documents, and the like. Google is promoting iGoogle, which is much more customizable but which also seems to lack the professionalism of Desktop.

Unique Features

Google offers a lot more options for the average user than Zoho does. Picasa organizes photos. Youtube and Google Video allow you to upload videos. Maps can be customized. It also has a very limited database-type fuction using forms for spreadsheets. Google's offering is still very much separate applications, though. Work groups appear to do their own thing without a standard style guideline. Each Google app has a different interface, even among the typical office applications, which you would think ....

Zoho is an integrated application, though.  Zoho's single interface makes everything really simple to get at and the emphasis on looking like desktop counterparts really helps adjustment. Zoho may be missing a couple of the things Google offers, but this is not actually that big of an issue because Zoho's interface allows you to embed outside applications like Picasa, Maps or Reader. Zoho professional also has an application maker to let you fill in the gaps with custom applications for your business and a database application similar to Access.

Browser Integration

Google wins hands down on the browser integration situation, which moderates its broken app intergration. Google Toolbar brings most of the applications together, and the Docs sidebar add-on allows easy access to most of your stuff.

Zoho doesn't have much in this area, really, but it doesn't really need it outside of bookmarking. I would be happy using Zoho in Prism (immitatiing a local application). You would never catch me doing that with Google. I'd need a full Firefox. The biggest downside of Zoho that I see for personal use is that my collaborators need to use an address. Google allows any address to register and use its apps.


Google is obviously aiming for personal use. It wants to use the network effect and its brand image to leverage its search and GMail business into this new market. If you have a GMail account, everything is already available for you. In my opinion, even though GMail is not the most popular web mail, it has a large proportion of the first movers, and these are the type of people who will start switching everything to on-line applications. It appears to be a smart move, but is it evil? Not for me. Search is a Google virtual-monopoly right now, but it doesn't give me access to these applications. Having a GMail acocunt does, but GMail is a small player in the web -mail market.

Google's applications are kind of like the Open Source 3 Bs -- beta, buggy, and butt ugly. OK, it's not really that bad in either camp, but Google definitely pushes features out quickly without worrying about some of the side effects (sharing personal information or breaking stuff) and doesn't emphasize flashiness. They lack integration and a consistent look and feel, something which I think the developers should look toward. They are also too minimalistic for most people, I would imagine.

Google is probably good for you, and OK for a school, but there's someone else I'd recommend for the average business.

Zoho is business software through and through. Consistent look -- desktop application model to minimize training, and all the little workflow pieces that Google lacks. I think I'd actually like using Zoho at work. That says a lot.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Day 18: Google vs. Zoho: Mail, Calendar, and Office Suite

These thirty days are dedicated to Google. I made that clear in the beginning, but I'm running out of stuff to talk about except being slightly bored and a little limited. I've pretty much fully adjusted my work-flow. Honestly, since I used Googel Apps so much before, I didn't have to adjust much at all. I probably wouldn't be a fidgety as I am if my computer only had a browser and file manager: right now, there are a ton of programs installed that I'm not allowed to use, and my self-control is the only thing holding me back.

Well, I started looking for another solution than Google Apps since some people might not want to give their entire lives over to Google. Zoho is the other  big name on the radar. It has a complete suite of applications (many of which I've never really used), and it appears to match up pretty well on a point-by-point basis with Google Apps. Let's look closer, shall we? For this first comparison, I'll be talking about the free version of each. I'll talk about business add-ons later.


Google has GMail, which has been traditionally minimalist, but which broke out of that mold with Labs and now themes. E-mails are organized into conversations and the content is scanned for things like tasks and appointments to be added to the calendar. Attached documents can be downloaded or opened in Google Docs. GMail has excellent spam protection and uses labels for tagging. The storage is notoriously huge, increasing all the time. Search is, of course, excellent. Weak points include contact management, the lack of folders (for some people), and ads in the free version.
Zoho Mail
Zoho, on the other hand, uses a more traditional three-pane setup with individual e-mails, though a conversation view can be chosen. One source reports unlimited e-mail space. Attached documents can be opened in Zoho Writer, but it appears that they are read-only and temporary, while the Google version imports the document. Either behavior can be annoying depending on what you want at the time.

Both applications use Google Gears for off-line operation and are accessible via either POP or IMAP.


 Google Calendar
The Google Calendar offers minimalism, again, with day, 3-day, week, and month views. Adding an event is relatively straightforward. Deleting or changing one isn't hard, but not nearly as intuitive. Google has many public calendars which can be added -- holidays, for example. You can access or share a read-only version of your calendar online using the ical (not iCal) format.
Zoho Calendar
The Zoho calendar's interface is not much different, and has virtually the same fuctionality, though it has a five-day work week format instead of 3 days.

Both calendars offer "Smart" or "Quick" add, allowing you to type in natural language, but Google's appears to be more sophisticated. Both applications added an appointment for me when I typed "meeting at 3 on Thursday," but Zoho's was at 3 a.m. ... not what was intended.

Office Suite

Google Docs
Google Spreadsheet
Google Presentations
Google offers very on-line applications for word processing, spreadsheeting, and presenting. They are often panned as having too few features. The font choice is limited, and I find that I have to go into HTML mode sometimes to clean up a bad cut-and-paste or bulleted list. It also encourages styles, though the only way to edit styles is through CSS. Meh. The presentation app doesn't support tables or any real slide transitions. Functions are limited on the spreadsheet, with many calling it "a toy." The presentation application is primitive in comparison to Zoho, but Zoho still appears to lack any transitions. The presentation themes are all very down-to-business. The suite does offer real-time collaboration, though, and mindless revisions.
Zoho Writer
Zoho Sheets using VBA and recording macros

Zoho Show
Zoho once again goes for the desktop application look and feel. This makes it much easier to adjust to. I immediately know where everything is because it looks and acts so much like or MS Office (pre-2007). It has many more fonts, including Comic Sans. Don't laugh. I really want some handwriting font for young kids so that they don't have to deal with print-style "a"s. Zoho has both a "style" and "heading" menu, but the headings don't seem to do much to the layout. It has a "Title" and "Subtitle" style, which I would like to see in Google. The spreadsheet does "pivot tables," something I hear a call for a lot in Google, though I've never used it in any spreadsheet. The presentation app can present in sync at various locations. Google doesn't have this ability. The presentations also are much more visually attractive than Google's and I wish I had them for my classes. Show has good image tools and can use "Shapes" to draw vector art right in the application.

That's all the time I can afford today. I'll try to finish up with task management, site maintenance, meeting methods, and the overview app, as well as my thoughts on both suites and apps that don't have equivalents in both suites.