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Top Web Tools of 2008 – Number 2

zoho-notebook-logoZoho Notebook helps you organize information into multiple-page web-based spiral notebooks. You can easily combine text, graphics, audio, video, and embedded content from other sites.I have long been a Zoho fanboy, but I continue to be amazed at how forward-looking Zoho Notebook is, and how the drag-and-drop interface let’s you customize the arrangements of objects on a webpage in ways that just can’t be done with Dreamweaver and other html page editors (at least, not in any way that I know of).

As a Web 2.0 tool, you can easily collaborate with others by sharing an entire notebook, individual pages of one or more notebooks, or specific objects (such as images) within a particular notebook page. That granularity in assigning rights is pretty uncommon. As you would expect, you can assign either editing or read-only privileges to your collaborators. There’s even a built-in chat window for exchanging instant messages with distant collaborators.

There is a Firefox plug-in for Zoho Notebook that allows you to take screenshots of web pages. After installing the plug-in, you can right click on any web page to capture the entire page or just a user-defined selection of the page. These screenshots will be inserted into your open Zoho Notebook (must be logged in to Notebook) where you can then re-size, edit, or change the positioning of the object.

Zoho Notebook treats everything in your notebook pages as an object that you can move around anywhere you choose, even creating layers of objects if you so desire. Objects can be pinned in place so that you don’t accidentally move them, or you can leave them ready to be dragged and dropped to a new location with a flick of the wrist (mouse).

When you open a new notebook you start with a blank page. You have complete control over what types of content you add and where you add it. Additional blank pages can be added from the control panel, or instead of a blank page, you can begin with a word processing document, a spreadsheet, or a web page that you want to share. The first two options make use of the Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet applications  which are integrated into the Notebook interface. You have all of the editing tools from both applications, available right inside your collaborative notebook. If you use other Zoho services (which I do), you can easily incorporate other things such as presentation slides from Zoho show, and even web forms made with Zoho Creator.

There are also some basic whiteboarding capabilities built into Zoho Notebook. I wouldn’t consider it to be a replacement for a full-featured whiteboard, but you can mark up documents and such using these drawing tools.

To recap, the following types of content can be used:

  • Text Boxes, of any size and placement
  • Images, via upload or URL
  • Audio, upload from computer, point to URL,  or record with microphone
  • Video, upload from computer, embed from YouTube or similar, or record with webcam
  • HTML, which allows you to include any content that you can normally embed into a Web page
  • A website via its URL, which can embedded onto the page using an iFrame-ish picture-in-picture, or use the entire webpage as a separate page of the notebook
  • RSS feed, which will display in an RSS reader widget
  • A file attachment via URL or upload
  • An embedded document from Zoho Sheet or Zoho Writer which can either be a separate window in a page with other content or the whole page to itself

Zoho Notebook also includes wiki-like history of versions and version comparisons. A new version of the notebook is recorded in history every time that you save a page. You have the option of reverting to an earlier saved version at any time, which allows you to easily correct errors, or simply review the progress that has been made on a collaborative project by the different authors. Even better, each object in the notebook has its own version history so that you can revert changes to that object without changing everything else in the notebook. That’s pretty damn cool.

Toondoo, Zoho, Jambav, Adventnet – it’s all good

Another toondoo by Barry

Another toondoo by Barry

At the risk of sounding too much like a fanboy – I just have to say it one more time – love Toondoo and Zoho. This is nothing new for me since I’ve been sort of an evangelist for the past couple of years now. However, they continue to surprise me with how much they pay attention to their users and how responsive they are to suggestions or comments. With regard to Toondoo, back in Dec. 2007, I included them in my end of year list of the Top 12 Web 2.0 Tools. In that post I lamented the fact that I had wanted to use Toondoo with the elementary schools kids where I run the after-school Tech Club, but that I wouldn’t do it because there was too much inappropriate content on the site – mostly lame attempts at adult humor in cartoon format. Within a day or two of that post I received an email from Toondoo telling me that they had added a safe search button at the top of each page and a personal setting that can be turned on to not show any content that has been flagged as inappropriate. I was impressed with their responsiveness, but not terribly impressed with the solutions. I would still have very little control over whether the students turned on the safe search button, except when they were right in the classroom with me. Alas, I had them complete their comic strip projects using a far inferior, but safe, comic creation tool at MakeBeliefsComix.

Then, earlier this month I included Toondoo in my post of the free web tools that I would be willing to pay for. My caveat here was that I would be willing to pay for the tool in order to use it with the youngsters if they could give me a protected environment – think of something like a Ning site which can be password protected, but where the group members could create, share, comment upon, and otherwise do everything that you can do on the regular site, but only with your fellow group members. Sort of a fully-featured gated community for young toondudes.

Lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Rajendran D. of Jambav within just a few days of making that post. TPTB at Jambav thought that was a good idea and were especially intrigued that I had even offered to pay for it. They are proposing that I be a beta tester for their new branded sites opportunity. They will provide a unique URL such as LakeSuperior.toondoo.com and allow me to host the members of my choosing. They are thinking that this service will probably sell for about $50 US per year, but they are offering it for free to me as a beta tester to use it with the students and to report back to them with suggestions and comments. This isn’t yet a totally done deal, but I’m confident that I will be able to try this out with the Tech Club when school starts up again in the fall.

Jambav is owned by Adventnet, which is a profitable software development company. Zoho is also owned by Adventnet, which gives them a potent 1-2 punch in my book. The most recent moment of Zen for me regarding Zoho tools was when I was presenting at the Tennessee Board of Regents Summer Institute last month (TBR08). I did two sessions on Zoho tools that were well attended and well received. There were many times that jaws dropped during those sessions as people saw some of the functionality that they didn’t know existed, or hadn’t taken the time to investigate. I always say that I think the Zoho suite is far advanced over Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and a few Google users confirmed what I was thinking about the power that is Zoho. I also did a session there about Toondoo, and there were so many great ideas about how to use comic strips for both student projects and for other purposes related to online courses and programs. For example, (1) make a Toonbook of frequently asked questions, (2) have students prepare a comic strip to introduce themselves at the beginning of the class, (3) instructor-created comic strip or toonbook as a topic teaser (introducing a new topic before more in-depth study), and several others.