Zoho’s CRM

Zoho CRM

I have been looking for a cheap, quick to implement and eay to use CRM (customer relationship management) system to use while a long term solution is identified. This led me to have a play with Zoho’s offering, which is a real gem. Not only is it pretty fully featured, but there is also the ability to customise fields, and add your own. This is invaluable as the service is pretty heavily sales-focused.

Add to this that the system is free for the first 3 users, and only $12 (about £6) a month for any additional users, it’s a real bargain.

Another option within this space is 37 Signals’ Highrise, which isn’t as fully featured as the Zoho effort.

There are downsides of course – I’m not sure, for example, what the data protection issues are for holding large amounts of other people’s personal data online are, especially for a public body. But in terms of features, ease of use, customisability and price, this is a real winner.

Google: Not just Search

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people reading this blog that Google provides a number of services other than their traditional business area of web search. Many of the tools can be used as part of an online community environment, indeed it’s possibly to build an entire platform – albeit one spread amongst disparate, if partially integrated, services – using these tools, all for free (or at least very cheap). In this post I will cover some of these and discuss how they can be used to communicate and collaborate online.

Google Reader

Reader is Google’s RSS aggregator. These are really useful services which enable you to monitor your favourite websites without having to visit each one individually. This video shows how uber-blogger Robert Scoble uses Reader to get through an astonishing number of site feeds.

Reader is the best service of its type. Good community use of it includes the ability to share items you find particularly interesting. This produces a web page of content you have picked out which others can use, and there is an RSS feed for this too. Interesting blog posts or other website content can therefore be easily shared with others.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Bloglines, Newsgator

Google Groups

Google Groups is a system of creating communities which communicate through email or a web based interface. It’s effectively a souped up mailing list arrangement, but works pretty well. The web section allows documents to be uploaded and shared, and web pages to be created for further pooling of information.

To be honest, services like Groups are somewhat unsophisticated in today’s world of Facebook, Bebo et al. But they are quick, free and easy to set up and could provide the basis for a community, certainly at the early stages. The ability to contribute just through email is pretty useful too.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Groups

Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Docs and Spreadsheets is Google’s answer to ‘Office 2.0’ – the use of office suites of applications within the browser. In this case it’s a word processor and a spreadsheet app. The benefits of this type of approach are as follows:

  • Zero cost of software
  • No upgrade worries
  • Access and edit your documents from any computer with a decent internet connection
  • Share and collaborate on documents from anywhere in the world without having multiple emailed versions flying around

In terms of online collaboration, these tools are astonishingly good. There are some risk considerations: you need to be online to use them, your data is stored on a third party server and the functionality isn’t up to the standard of desktop applications. But overall, the good stuff outweighs the bad considerably.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Zoho, ThinkFree

Blogger

Blogger is Google’s blogging service. It’s incredibly popular, largely because it was first out of the blocks. Personally, I hate it, but it’s pretty easy to use for beginners, allows total control of how your blog appears, lets you have adverts to make some money and there is a certain level of integration with other Google services.

However, it’s almost impossible to get the address you want for your blog as so many people are already using it, as a network it’s full of spam blogs, and is nowehere near as feature rich as the likes of my personal favourite in the field, WordPress.com.

Blogs should be an integral part of any online community platform though – they make publishing content so easy.

Cost: Free
Rivals: WordPress.com, TypePad, LiveJournal

Customised Search

Google’s customised search service (CSE) is extremely powerful, easy to set up and stuffed full of benefits for service providers and users alike. This technology effectively provides an alternative to products which cost a serious amount of money.

CSE answers the problem of searching the web and getting loads of irrelevant or spam-filled results. Here’s how it works: you provide Google with a whitelist of sites which you know to be relevant to want people want to search and when people use your customised search, they only get results from those pages, thus increasingly significantly the likelihood that they will be relevant. You can also label sites, which provides clickable filters for the user to further drill down into the results.

Google provides you with a homepage to direct users to, or you can embed the engine within another website, or even set up a bespoke homepage. Examples of uses of this technology include my efforts LGSearch, KMSearch and BookZilla, as well as Simon Dickson’s Findless.

Cost: Free (you will probably make some money on adverts!)
Rivals: Rollyo, Swicki

Google Maps

Lots of people use Google Maps to find their way from A to B, and it works very well in this regard. It’s also very simple to insert a map into another web page, to show the location of your offices, for example. But the Maps API (application programming interface) means it can be much more powerful than that.

For example, you can create a map and display it on your site with a wide variety of information on it. Take a look at Findless’ MP Map for example. This presents a map of the UK with markers for each MP’s constituency on it. Click these markers and information about that MP appears. Pretty clever, but even more so when you consider that the information that pops up isn’t produced by the site, but rather an RSS feed from another service, called TheyWorkForYou. So the MP Map site is merely using two different data sources and ‘mashing’ them up to produce a radically more useful service.

Such mashups are an incredibly powerful element of the technology base of Web 2.0 and Google Maps is a great example of a company being open with its information for the benefit of the community. The potential application of this technology has limitless benefits for online communities and collaborative partnerships.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Maps

Gmail

Gmail (or Googlemail as it’s known in some parts of the world) is a web based email service that is probably the best one available at the moment. Here’s a list of some of the cool features:

  • Threaded conversations – replies are all kept together in context
  • Nearly 3 gigabytes of storage space – no need to delete anything
  • Excellent spam filtering – publicise your email address with confidence
  • Handle other email accounts through GMail – you can even send mail from a different address
  • Add labels to emails rather than putting them in folders – so you can have an email with more than one label
  • Use Google Talk instant messaging without having to leave the Gmail screen
  • Find your emails with the powerful search tool
  • The adverts are text only and unobtrusive

Gmail is great to use as an email system for online communities, whether as a contact address for the community as a whole or for use by individual members. There are a number of innovative ways it can be used as a productivity tool as well – soon making it an indispensable service.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail

Calendar

Google’s calendar offering is another one which, like Gmail, blew the opposition apart. It’s a great little service, with sharing information with others at the heart of much of what is cool about it.

You can share your appointments with other people, create group calendars which aggregate lots of people’s appointments into one, and make calendars public and readable by anybody.

This flexibility makes Calendar a great time management tool for any collaborative enterprise.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Kiko, 30 Boxes

iGoogle

iGoogle is the name given to what was the personalised home page. It’s basically a Google search page with lots of different content on it, which you can choose. It could be made up of RSS feeds, mini versions of Gmail or Calendar, an interactive file list of your Docs and Spreadsheets and a whole gamut of other widgets and services.

iGoogle actually falls behind some of the competition in this area, in that it’s difficult to share a personalised page with others, so its use as a community tool is limited. However, with a little organisation, it should be possible to work out a common set up between members of a community to help foster information sharing and reuse.

The real value of iGoogle, though, is its role within the Google Apps for your Domain platform.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Netvibes, Protopage, Pageflakes

Google Apps for your Domain

Google Apps, as the service is known for short, is a customisable version of the following Google services:

• Gmail
• Calendar
• Docs and Spreadsheets
• iGoogle
• Google Talk
• Web Page Creator

Essentially, you register a new domain, or configure an existing one, with Google and they provide these services for free up to 200 users. You can change colour schemes and add logos to give it all a corporate feel. Effectively, this is a enterprise standard groupware solution. For free.

iGoogle becomes more useful because you can control what the left hand column contains, so that a certain element of the page is similar for everyone, ensuring that specific information is distributed to everyone on the network.

The only lame part of the package is Web Page Creator, which is a service I haven’t mentioned before because it isn’t great and isn’t terribly important. Unless you are a DNS wizard, it’s tricky to get your URL displaying anything other than the pages you create in this very simplistic application. See the Change2 homepage for the sort of thing that’s possible (ie not a lot).

There are a couple of services that really ought to be integrated too, like Blogger and Reader for example. But Google Apps is still an amazing deal.

Cost: Price of a domain
Rivals: None that I can think of

What’s missing?

In terms of the Google spread of services, not a lot. Using the free stuff Google offers, you could clearly create a useful network, with a little work and using the Google Apps service as a hub to control the rest obviously has its benefits.

But there are a couple of things missing. One is a decent wiki service. Google has Notebook, a simple note taking and sharing tool, but it is nowhere near the power of, say, Wikispaces. This should be sorted out soon, however, as Google bought JotSpot not so long ago, which is an established and fully featured wiki platform. I would hope to see this made part of the Google Apps suite pretty quickly, too.

The other is a decent photo sharing service to rival Yahoo!’s Flickr. Google has Picasa Web Albums, which ties in with their free desktop photo manager (which is actually quite good) but there isn’t anywhere near the same power, flexibility or community elements that Flickr has.

Conclusion

Google provide a huge array of free tools to help you communicate and collaborate with others online. For many community groups and collaborative endeavours, this will be sufficient. The real gem is the Google Apps package, which for the price of a domain name will enable you to tie together a number of the services and provide a more tightly integrated experience for users.

But Blogger for me is too weak a blogging tool to be of much use to anyone but a real beginner, and I would recommend using WordPress.com instead as a free option. Also, until JotSpot is re-released, any wiki pages will have to be hosted on a non-Google site like Wikispaces. These are two areas that will need to be addressed before Google can be considered a one-stop community shop.

Further reading:

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Exchanging Innovation, Openly

David Wilcox in a post called Developing the New Media Open Innovation Exchange opens upthe site and the community that developed around it to become a network of social media collaborators, dedicated to producing services and platforms for social benefit. He’s even created a Facebook group.

This fits in perfectly with my vision for Change2. All the sites I have developed provide services using Web2.0 and social media technology for free to the people who will make use of them.

Easily my most successful is LGSearch which clearly filled a yawning gap for people wanting to be able to run searches for information within the UK public sector.

The Open Innovation Exchange is currently lacking a logo. I’ve put the following two efforts up for consideration.

Oie1 Oie2

In the meantime, my focus is clearly shifting away from local government specific stuff, and more into the wider non-profit sector, and specifically, I think, into the gaps between the two. I’ll need to decide how much longer LGNewMedia is to last – especially as there is a chance I won’t be working in the sector by the end of the year.

Cheers, Gears

Google Gears

Following up on previous posts about Google Gears, the web service that lets you bring your online world offline, I thought I ought to post about a couple more examples of it being used. Both have popped up on the Wikipedia entry for Gears, which is worth keeping an eye on for new developments.

The first one is SQLAdmin for Gears, which I cannot pretend to understand, though there is some explaination here.

Second is the far more straightforward Gearpad, which explains itself succinctly:

Gearpad is a simple notepad you can access from anywhere, even offline.

When you return to the network, your notes will be synchronized with the server automatically. Hooray!

Hooray indeed.

Gearing Up

Google Gears Remember the Milk

Google Gears is already being picked up by third party developers, as reported by LifeHacker. Remember the Milk is a nice online social task (or todo list) manager. Only now it’s offline too.

As reported on the Remember the Milk blog:

Anything that you do offline will be synchronized when you come back online. You can move seamlessly between online and offline modes — RTM will automagically detect when you don’t have an Internet connection, and will have your tasks ready for you. If you’re expecting to go offline (for instance, those fun-filled 14 hours flying from Sydney to San Francisco), you can also manually switch into offline mode. Then, when you’re bored of the repeating in-flight movies, you can pull out RTM and methodically tag and locate all of your tasks.

I was thinking that it would be good for someone to maintain a central resource of Gears enabled sites – and of course Wikipedia already has it. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the list as it develops.

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Google Gears

Google Gears

Google’s been doing plenty of work, and buying, to create an office suite which runs online. Those who see it as a potential Microsoft killer are always challenged on the fact that the online tools are great while you have a live web connection, but are not so cool when you are stuck somewhere without one.

Desktop applications, of course, don’t need a web connection to work, and so are of far more use when one isn’t available. Microsoft triumphs again.

But Google has released something which might change all that. Gears is a system whereby online information can be downloaded and used offline. As the home page so succinctly puts it:

Google Gears (BETA) is an open source browser extension that enables web applications to provide offline functionality using following JavaScript APIs:

  • Store and serve application resources locally
  • Store data locally in a fully-searchable relational database
  • Run asynchronous Javascript to improve application responsiveness

Amen to that!

There’s only one Gears application at the moment, but it’s a cool one. It’s for Google Reader, the best of breed online RSS aggregator, which lets you download your feeds and read them even when not connected to the web. Excellent!

The potential with this is significant, of course. Being able to use Docs and Spreadsheets, and the forthcoming Presentation app whilst offline will seriously increase their usefulness. Indeed, wiki editing whilst offline would be very nice, and even blogging, using the built in editors that come with WordPress and Blogger, rather than third party applications should be possible. Exciting times.

Zoho Notebook (beta)

Zoho

Zoho are one of my favourite web 2.0 companies. They provide pretty much best of breed web applications: cool stuff like a word processor, a spreadsheet, presentations, online meetings, wikis, and oodles of other stuff

Anyway, their latest little number is Notebook, a web based notetaking application. This isn’t just Windows Notepad online though: with Zoho’s Notebook you can add just about anything to a note: text, images, videos, audio, chunks of HTML, RSS feeds, entire web pages. Your notebook can also include word processed pages, or spreadsheets using the relevant Zoho tool.

I really get can’t across just how feature rich Notebook actually is. Try this video, instead:

All the other Zoho apps, taken together, provide a great platform for transferring your productivity to a web based approach. Notebook, though, is something else – probably the most comprehensive web application I’ve come across.

[tags]zoho notebook[/tags]

Bubbl.us – online mind mapping

Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a great service. It allows you to create mind maps within your web browser. You can share them with other people, and collaborate on them too. A great way of mapping out projects with people who aren’t geographically close.

I’ve created a quick map to show how it can work. It’s about social media, but is only for demonstration purposes: I know it isn’t comprehensive or probably even accurate. Here’s a link to the exported .png image file:

Bubblus_Social_Media

Which is very nice. But I can also embed it into a blog post, or any other site:

 Which you can whizz around with your mouse and zoom in and stuff. Nice!

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Google Groups as Community Platform?

Google Groups

I mentioned Ning a few posts ago, and in the comments Steve Dale pondered whether it could be used to power a virtual community of practice – ie, would it work as a knowledge sharing and collaboration tool?

I thought not, largely because while Ning makes sharing photos and videos a dream, making other material available is trickier, if not impossible. The idea, though, that a free hosted solution is an intriguing one, not least in terms of the ease and speed in which they can be set up.

So, I’ve been playing around with Google Groups, which is something I have wanted to do since a raft of new features were added relatively recently. I think it’s now possible to use Groups as a sophisticated collaboration platform, and one which will see some real improvements in the (hopefully) near future.

So, what does Groups do? It’s core feature is as a discussion medium, which runs in parallel on the web and through email, depending on how each user prefers it. This is a super way of doing things, allowing information to reach people within the community in the format that they want it.

Membership can be made public, so anyone can join; moderated, so those who request to join have to be given the go ahead by an administrator; or invite only, which speaks for itself.

You can create web pages now, which are accessible on your group’s homepage. These are edited using a stripped down version of Google’s Page Creator tool, which is nice and easy to use. What’s interesting is that permissions can be set to allow any member to create and edit pages which when combined with the excellent version controlling, which allow you to roll back to a previous version of a page, effectively turns these pages into individual wikis.

It’s also possible to upload any kind of document to the group, which is a nice way of sharing information. However, Google misses a trick here, because the documents, whether word processed or spreadsheet based, can’t be automatically edited with Google Docs. This would turn an interesting feature into a world beating one for me.

The handling of other media could also be better. For example, images are dealt with just like other documents. It would be helpful to have separate sections for different types of media: photos, audio, video. Maybe the photos could work with Picasa Web Albums, audio could use the inbuilt mp3 player used in Gmail and Reader, and video could surely be embedded directly from either Google Video or YouTube.

But for the basics, communicating and sharing information, Google Groups is a really strong contender, given how easy it is to use, the fact that it is free and that there will surely be some very interesting developments to the platform in the near future.

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