We tell the story of key technology trends from the past month.
Caption by: Christian Harris
These days, there's increasingly little reason to use a traditional locally installed office suite. Google Docs and Zoho, for example, are both free and well-featured web-based suites — and both can be used offline, thanks to Google Gears. Zoho is the most comprehensive suite of web-based applications for small businesses, and its flagship word processor recently received a major interface overhaul in its 2.0 incarnation.
Zoho Writer is one of a host of web-based applications offered by AdventNet to rival traditional software from competitors like Microsoft, Corel and OpenOffice.org, and web-based applications from Google. Zoho offers nearly 20 web-based applications — some free for personal use, while business applications require a fee — and continues to make improvements to its portfolio. For example, recently Zoho added single sign-on support for its CRM application, a move that sets the stage for tighter integration between the different modules.
Zoho Writer 2.0's revamped interface is based around a combination of tabs and drop-down menus that makes for a less confusing user experience.
Previously, Zoho Writer displayed all of its functionality via a three-row toolbar. However, as functionality was added the interface became crowded. The key enhancement in Zoho Writer 2.0 is the MenuTab design, which streamlines the toolbar with tabbed menus that organise commands in context-based groups. The key here is the ability to use the tabs as menus: you can access these commands either by clicking the tab, which brings up the appropriate button set on your toolbar (much like Microsoft Office 2007's ribbon) or by clicking the little arrow to the right of the tab title, which opens a drop-down menu without changing the toolbar beneath.
Zoho Writer 2.0 includes tabs for Format, Insert, Review, Share, Views and Page Setup. Commonly used features like Save, Undo/Redo, Cut/Copy/Paste and so on are grouped together to the left of the MenuTabs, so that they're always accessible.
Other interface enhancements include an enhanced sidebar, improved header/footer with auto-fill support, and more document info with a live word count displayed in the status bar. The new sidebar, which is now consistent with that of Zoho Sheet. , also now includes search functionality. Elsewhere, you can change your page layout from the default portrait to landscape mode. However, collaborative editing (in real time if necessary via Zoho Chat) is an important new feature — and a necessary one, given that Google Docs has been doing this for some time. On the downside, it's too easy to overwrite another user's edits.
Collaboration features include real-time group editing via Zoho Chat.
Zoho Writer works just like a regular word processor. You can start with a blank page, or import HTML, DOC, DOCX, SXW (Open Office), ODT, RTF, JPEG, GIF, PNG and text files, with a 10MB maximum file size. You can also export documents to a similarly wide range of formats, as well as publish documents to your blog, share them with the public or share via email. A useful History feature lets you revert to any previously saved versions. It also can show you the differences between the versions. The result looks similar to revisions in Word — highlighted and underlined — but it doesn't identify which user made the change.
Zoho Writer provides a link to browse some 50 templates, any of which you can import into your library. Another thing we noticed in this release is that the Insert Layer feature has been removed. This is because it tended to mess up certain complex documents by not maintaining its position. As a workaround, you have to use the Insert Table option without borders.
The problem with web-based applications like Zoho is one of constant improvement. That may not seem like a problem, but as more and more features are added without revamping the interface, things can get a little unruly. Zoho Writer's UI redesign works very well and ensures that the application doesn't overwhelm you visually, which in turn makes it easier to work with.
Although Zoho Writer 2.0 doesn't offer some of the advanced functionality of desktop applications like Microsoft Word, it does provide one of the richest feature sets of any online word processor — and, of course, it's free.
Caption by: Christian Harris