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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Online Collaboration: Share Notes, Media And RSS With Zoho Notebook

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Online collaboration tools are increasingly important to the smooth running of businesses large and small. So wouldn't it be useful to share and collaborate via an online notebook, adding web clippings, video, audio, rich-media web content and even RSS? It's already possible.

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There is no shortage of tools and services that will help you to collaborate on document editing, whiteboarding, and sharing RSS, web clippings or videos over the Internet. But many of the available options come with a reasonably unpleasant price tag, and few combine all of these elements into a single application.

Zoho Notebook does just that, giving you an easy way to create, aggregate and share content right from your browser. Packing in a solid list of features into an easy to use JavaScript interface, here is an online collaboration tool that will let you:

  • Easily create content right from the application, whether using drawing and shape tools, webcam or microphone recording, or integrated spreadsheet and word processing tools
  • Import Internet media, including websites, RSS feeds, photos, videos and web clippings, in addition to being able to import HTML code, and as such bring in web widgets of every description
  • Share with the world, or else with specific individuals, with access controls and version comparisons on a book, page and object level

Here is a tool that could prove to be very useful to any team collaborating over the web, setting no boundaries on the type of media or content that can be quickly shared, commented on and edited in real time. They've even thrown in chat and Skype integration.

Zoho Notebook - Overview

Zoho Notebook is a recent addition to the extensive list of online office applications that make up the Zoho Office Suite.

The key strength of Zoho Notebook is its sheer versatility in terms of both the content that you can create and aggregate with the tool and the granular sharing options available when you decide to publish your work. Here is a simple to use online notebook that lets you bring in all types of web media, from RSS feeds to photos and videos, and then seamlessly bring them together with text, whiteboarding, word processing and spreadsheet files, right from your browser window.

If your job, studies or personal life involve sharing information with others, this is as good a way as any to bring all of that information together into one place. Whether you want to brainstorm ideas, work together on an important account, or simply share websites, feeds and videos that interest you, Zoho Notebook makes it really simple to do so.



Content Integration

Once you log into your notebook its very easy to start adding content to it, and the good people at Zoho haven't skimped on the options made available to you. You'll begin with a blank page, and from there can set about either creating or importing the information that you want to share.

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New blank pages can be added from the control panel, or alternatively you can begin with a spreadsheet, word processor document or a web page that you want to share. The first two options make use of the Zoho Sheet and Zoho Writer applications respectively, seamlessly integrated into the Notebook interface. This gives you all of the functionality of both applications, right from your collaborative notebook.

Using this first content creation menu your document, spreadsheet or live website take up the entirety of the notebook workspace, enhanced by the fact that you can add other media over the top, or make use of the basic whiteboarding capabilities built into Zoho Notebook:

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But you are not limited to working with annotated full-page documents, as Zoho Notebook also lets you bring in or create content in flexible, mixed-media layouts. Right below the first list of options, a second list opens up the content that you can work with considerably.

From here you can bring in:

  • Images, via upload or URL
  • Audio, either from a file on your computer or by recording your microphone
  • Video, from a URL or your computer
  • HTML, which allows you to bring in any content that you can embed into a website, whether it be a Google Calendar or a useful web widget
  • A website via its URL, which is embedded onto the page within an IFrame-like viewer.
  • An RSS feed, which will be converted into a handy RSS reader widget
  • A file that you want to share, via URL or upload
  • An embedded version of Zoho Sheet or Write which can be resized to sit alongside other content

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This gives you an impressive array of content to share, and covers all of the major bases. Out of all of the features I was particularly wowed by the ability to bring in HTML code, as this opens up the application to the almost infinite number of files and applications that can be shared in this way. In short, if it has an embed code, you can plug it right into your Zoho Notebook.

This gives you an easy way to share YouTube videos, Google Gadgets or a well put together RSS aggregator like Grazr and share them with anyone that has access to your notebook. In short, this is web widget heaven:

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Besides being able to bring in all sorts of functionality through widgets, you also have some great tools included in the interface itself. I think that the ability to record video from your webcam, or audio right from your microphone could be very useful in a collaborative context - whether providing a record of a meeting, conference or lecture, or simply serving as an audio or video messaging system.

Let's say you want to leave quick feedback on a client's website, or editorial notes for a member of your writing team - being able to record a message, and assign access rights to that particular visitor alone, gives you a great and easy way to do so without having to type up a document from scratch.

Both the audio and video components (which offer the only use of Flash in an otherwise JavaScript application) are supplied by Flixn, a service set up to enable video and audio commenting.

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It's nice also that you are not committed to having your word processor docs or your spreadsheets take up the entire page of your notebook. It is perfectly possible to bring in both of these features in a fluid windowed mode.

This means that you can have word processing capabilities sitting right along side whiteboard annotations, photos, videos and widgets, giving the chance to create compelling media mash ups on the page.

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Browser Clippings

Another useful addition to the content import features of Zoho Notebook is the ability to right (or control) click and copy content directly from websites thanks to an optional Firefox plugin. These web clippings, which can include images, are automatically dropped into your notebook page, where they can be arranged, organized or edited.

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The only caveat is that you have to have your notebook currently open in a different window or tab of your browser to be able to use the copy command. This is ever so slightly limiting, and it would be nice if it were possible to add clippings even when your notebook was not currently open.



Whiteboarding

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While not the most comprehensive in the world, Zoho Notebook also features a basic set of realtime whiteboarding tools that you can use to mark up and annotate the content of your pages. These allow you to draw freehand, use line and shape tools, text and even speech bubbles.

This gives you an easy way to leave notes for a co-collaborator, or to mark up salient content on the page while your colleague or client looks on from their own screen. I didn't find the freehand tool to be the most responsive in the world, but it managed to do the job efficiently enough, and featured the option to change line width and colour, which is useful.

Adding speech bubbles and text notes, on the other hand, is a very simple task and one that makes the task of commenting even easier. However, pages and the discrete objects within them also have a separate commenting feature, so your options are left open.



Version Comparison

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One of the really useful functions built into Zoho Notebook is the wiki-like inclusion of versions and version comparisons. Each time a page is saved, a new version is recorded, which can then be compared with any other versions in the sequence using a drop-down menu.

This gives you the option of reverting to an earlier save point at any time, which can prove to be essential in a collaborative environment, where changes made may not always be agreeable to the group or to your client. Being able to quickly track back using this function makes it easy to fix up errors, as well as simply check out the progress that has been made on a communal project.

What I find very impressive though is the fact that versions needn't be applied to an entire page, as each discrete object on the page has a version history of its own, that can in turn be compared and revised at any point in time.



Publishing and Sharing

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This same granularity applies when it comes to publishing and sharing your notebook content with others. Publishing gives you the option of either sending out a URL that people can visit, or embedding your notebook right into your website or blog.

Sharing features allow you invite other users to access your entire notebook, a particular page within it, or even a specific object on the page, as each separate item has its own privacy permissions.

This could make a difference to people sharing with numerous collaborators, with different levels of access to the information that you wish to share. Person A might have access to a voice recording, note or video directly addressing them, which Person B wouldn't have any access to, for instance. This level of control over your content is a very welcome component of what is overall an easy-to-use, easy-to-customize collaboration tool.



Video Introduction

In the following video from the Demo 07 conference, Zoho Evangelist Raju Vegesna introduces the capabilities of Notebook:



Room for Improvement

Zoho Notebook is in beta and it times this is apparent. While glitches and bugs are rare, I did encounter a few that could be worked on to improve overall usability. Trying to access the audio recording feature, for instance, froze up the window on a couple of occasions, so that I had to close it and re-open it again.

In terms of usability the tool is largely very good. I would like, however, to see the inclusion of automatic scrolling when placing objects on a page. As it stands, if you move an object to a certain point at the bottom of the screen you have to use the scroll bars to manually move the whole page down before you can set about then shifting the object. This can be a bit laborious on a smaller laptop monitor, so it would be nice if scrolling were automated when moving objects.

That aside, and you will notice that these points are rather minor, Zoho Notebook is a pleasure to use, and the interface is easy to get to grips with.



Conclusions

While Zoho Notebook isn't perfect and has a few rough edges to smooth out, it is a frankly very impressive collaboration tool, especially considering the fact that it is totally free to use. The interface is largely very easy to get to grips with, and the range of content types that can be shared with your online collaborators is broad indeed.

Being able to easily create, aggregate, share and annotate video, RSS, web widgets, word processor and spreadsheet documents and even websites makes for a very handy tool if you are working with others at a distance. The fact that all of these tools are rolled into one, along with video and voice recording and realtime whiteboarding makes Zoho Notebook well worth checking out as a collaboration platform.

In addition to being able to work together in this range of different media, the application has both a built-in chat function, and Skype integration, so that you can see the status of your co-collaborators right from the notebook.

Notebooks are easy to share, too, whether you embed them into your website, pass a link along for others to visit, or set access rights on a book, page or even object level. This allows for a great amount of flexibility as to what you choose to share or keep private, down to the smallest degree.

All in all if you are looking for a comprehensively featured collaborative multimedia workspace, Zoho Notebook is well worth checking out.



Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about Zoho Notebook, you might want to check out the following links:




Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Online Collaboration: Share Notes, Media And RSS With Zoho Notebook

 
 
 
Readers' Comments    
2007-06-13 18:27:25

michael Pick

Hi Sridhar

Thanks a lot for your feedback. I think that Zoho Notebook is a very useful tool and intend to use it a lot more in future in my own collaboration.

Can't wait to see those added extras - it would be really useful to be able to add clippings without my notebook open.

That said, great feature-set and service. Looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with next!



2007-06-13 17:00:46

Sridhar Vembu

Thank you for a very detailed review. We are working on improving it further, and we will consider the additional features you suggested (particularly I like the one about adding clipboard content to Notebook without having the Notebook open)

Sridhar



 
posted by Michael Pick on Wednesday, June 13 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015


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