Friday, December 30, 2011

The Black Art of Palmer

Thanks for coming to read "The Black Art of Palmer" about learning Penmanship and handwriting.  

This post has been rewritten, expanded, and posted on our successor blog, Frugal Guidance 2 at

Please come and visit and comment. Thanks.


A spiritual pilgrimage to low tech

Several months ago I dove into a branch of knowledge and skill that I had ignored most of my life. It's a shadowy discipline that is scorned by most schools these days. Libraries have discarded the ancient tomes. It's more obscure than The Kabbelah. It may have fewer apostles than Zoroaster. The Rosicrucians find it too much of a black art to deal with it; even Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code, finds it too obscure to research. It's so unknown that <gasp> there is not a single LinkedIn group to discuss it! Nevertheless, I decided to delve into that sinister branch of knowledge known to the select as "cursive handwriting," or, to the alliteratively initiated, "Palmer penmanship."

On this pilgrimage, I was confronted with questions and obstacles: Is there a place for cursive handwriting in a world of computers, wireless technology, the internet, and instantaneous communications? Is it possible to find the ancient texts that hold the secrets for the proselyte?

There are people who emphatically answer, "YES!" These are not technophobes, Luddites, or hermits living in isolated cabins in rural Wyoming plotting revenge on society. These are people who see a good hand as an essential skill to personalize communications and stand out from the crowd of mail-merged, SEO'd, and instantaneously reproduced digitized communications. These communicators know that a neatly written envelope and letter stands a better chance of being opened and read than that crooked mailing-labeled or glassined business envelope. They know, also, that a well-penned Thank You note can be treasured for years while their digitized compatriots rot in the bottom of the wastebasket.

As a novitiate, I also learned, contrary to all expectations, that good handwriting actually makes it a pleasure to sit down and write an entry into a journal, or to take the time to write a letter, or just practice forming letters during commercials while watching TV. And, when you run out of things to say, traditional writing tutors will also improve your doodles!

Even for the Black (Ink) Arts, there are centers of knowledge. Ancient Egyptians had the Library of Alexandria. Medieval Pilgrims had Santiago de Compostela. The Knights Templar had the Temple of Solomon. Renaissance monks and priests looked to The Vatican. Masons have Washington, DC (at least according to Dan Brown). Penmanship scholars have IAMPETH.

What is IAMPETH? It is an obscure group of penmen and penwomen (it's too awkward to say penpersons), who belong to the gloriously and ornately titled: The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting. The cathedral to their branch of knowledge is found at:

Once you click on the link, you find a website unlike any you have ever seen. To find the tutorials, click on "Lessons" from the small-printed menus at the top of the opening page.

In the following Table of Contents, select "Cursive Handwriting."

The most complete method is the PDF file of Palmer's Penmanship Budget by Austin Norman Palmer, printed in 1919 when he was nearly sixty years old--a summation of his teaching career. The Palmer Method, which is probably the most famous of the handwriting tutors, is no quick-fix method. If you were to begin in a class, you would spend weeks just drawing circles and lines before working on letters. (If you're like me, though, you can dive right in to the letters, but expect to practice for a long time.) One of the nice things about this book is the extensive use of handwriting samples by other writers, with alternate, creative letter forms that Palmer, himself, must have admired or, at least, tolerated.

If the Palmer Method seems too massive a mountain to scale, a bit simpler, and a bit plainer style is found in the "Champion Method of Practical Business Writing" by Mary L. Champion, which might be a good start before diving into the full Palmer Method.

If you want an alternative, you might also look at "A Complete Compendium of Plain Practical Penmanship" by L. M. Kelchner.

Of course, you should browse around all the other books and samples in the section, too.
If you want specially designed printed sheets to practice on, go to the "Guide Sheets" section.

Modern cursive was originally designed for business handwriting before typewriters and computers took over. Cursive style is probably the most adaptable to modern ballpoint and gel pens and pencils. For real calligraphy and older letter styles, you'll need to purchase the proper pens, nibs and inks to practice. It wouldn't hurt to own a paper company, too.

For a more florid and older American style, you might want to try your hand at Spencerian Script, and there's even a separate IAMPETH section for the even more ornate "Spencerian Ladies Hand."

Others might like to try their hand at the decorative but highly legible Copperplate/Engrossers Script.

For a more modern (and more expensive) look at handwriting, the Zaner-Bloser company still leads the charge for handwriting teachers with instructional aids. These are methods for teachers and classes, not so much for self-instruction, unfortunately. Check out

Another fascinating site for ornamental penmanship is

For more handwriting and notebook paper templates (mainly for younger students), go to

For a historic look at a few styles of lettering and calligraphy

A special blog post with Tips and Resources on Penmanship & Calligraphy

As you venture on the spiritual journey, you may suddenly have an urge to delve into even more obscure branches of knowledge about pens, paper, notebooks, note-taking, ink and related technology.

Fortunately, there are oodles of websites to learn about these topics, but it can easily grow into an obsession.

And then you may want to practice using those pens and papers in a journal, or start sending letters to people... and all of a sudden you're networking!

Finally, here are two commercial sites which have extensive blog lists for everything from writing to paper, journaling, ink and creativity:

You do not have to eschew your computer and digital technology to be a penman. There are ways to import your handwritten notes, lists, To Do's, and other ephemera into your computer. In fact, modern cell phones and their cameras make it a snap to import your notes (and all those Post-Its you had all over your computer monitor) into an organized file system, such as Evernote. But that's another post for another time.

Tags: cursive, Palmer, method, handwriting, penmanship, IAMPETH, Champion, writing

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Time for a LinkedIn Tune-up?

If you've been using LinkedIn for a while and you rely on it for your job search, to build your business, or just to build your network -- the end of December and early January might be a good time to give your profile its annual tune-up. (Thanks to members of the Twitter-based #LinkedInChat for several of these ideas. Join us on Tuesdays at 8:00 pm EST.)

Update your profile:
  • If you haven't already done it, add the new skills tool.
  • If you learned new skills this year, be sure to add them.
  • Also add any training you received, awards or commendations.
  • Update the links on your profile. If you haven't done it recently, check to make sure all your links work.
  • If you are working and have changed roles, update your headlines accordingly.
  • If you are looking for work, make sure your headlines reflect what you are currently looking for.
  • Rearrange the parts of your profile to emphasize what's important to you and your goals.

Other tune-up ideas:

Review your groups. Are they providing you with leads or information, expanding your reach, or providing inspiration (or fun)? If not, drop those and add better ones. With a rumored 1million groups on LinkedIn, you should find some good ones for you.

Take some free time and add tags to your connections. (In Contacts, in the left column, find "Tags" and click on "Manage."

Add an app to show off your work samples:
  • provides links to your uploaded sample files.
  • Google Presentations and Slideshare can be used to show off whatever you do. It can be as simple as one-page with your business card or as sophisticated as embedding a video of yourself.
  • If you blog, use the BlogLink or WordPress tool to show off your new blog posts.

If you already use or another site to share work samples, make sure your documents are up-to-date. You don't want stale material on your profile.

Check with your contacts and see if there is anyway you can help them.

If anybody on LinkedIn did you a good turn or gave you good service this past year, write them a recommendation.

If you are a veteran, go to the LinkedInlabs site and check out the new veterans apps.

If you are not a veteran, go to the LinkedInlabs site and check out the other experimental apps.

Consider writing one recommendation a week. It's a great way to pay it forward and you may get a few good recommendations back, too.

If you have other ideas for an annual check-up for your LinkedIn profile, please leave a comment describing it.

Now, please excuse me, I have to go to LinkedIn and start a tune-up.

Tags: LinkedIn, tune-up, profile, networking, job hunting

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Part 11, Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office

Zeal for Zoho for SOHO

Part B - Looking at the basic applications

In Part A we examined the extensive list of Zoho applications and how Zoho can coordinate with Google apps. Now we review some of Zoho's specific applications for individual, small office, nonprofit and frugal workers.

Zoho Writer

​Although Zoho’s Writer has been around for years, the newest version is still in beta testing , so it has more features, but they might not all be well documented. One apparent bug is that the Zoho menus on top of the page disappear when opening an older document, but reappear when you select a new document (at least in Chrome).

One of my favorite features in Writer is that the interface combines both icon-based ribbons (similar to those in Microsoft Office since 2007) plus the option of accessing the same features from a drop-down menu. This is something many users wish Microsoft had done when they rolled out their 2007 apps.

Another distinction from Google's Writer, is a bottom-of-the-screen bar which tells you the number of pages (and which page you are on), the version number, the author, how long since last modified, creation date, word and character counts, all updated whenever the document is saved (which is automatic or manual). This could make it easier to track versions to revert to an earlier one. The bar also has three icons: click on the cloud and it lists your collaborators and offers a chat box; another for contextual comments, and a third for tags. Zoho allows you to sort documents into folders (like Microsoft) and by assigning tags (like Google). 

There's also a small chat bar available, if you want.

Writer offers 27 English language fonts plus the graphical Webdings, equations, headers/footers, footnotes. You can directly insert HTML or view the entire document as HTML (which you can't do now on Google); you can also import or create HTML CSS stylesheets. Watermarks are a nice new feature, and you can select emoticons, which seems a little odd for a service geared towards business. Like Google, you can email the file directly if you don’t want to use the email app.

One of the few features Zoho doesn't include is a paragraph (or character) style sheet (which MS Word and Google Docs have). This may be an issue if you regularly work on long, heavily formatted documents.

The REVIEW menu includes spell check, a custom dictionary, word count, and a thesaurus, and accesses your history, too. (There is no grammar checker.) The SHARE options include a Post to Blog command. 

You can publish any document so anybody on the internet can access it, or invite selected users to read and/or edit it. (They don’t have to register with Zoho to read a document, but they must register to edit it.) 

The Doc Roll creates a embeddable link so you can post a link on your blog or website for a published document. There is a facility for Digital Signatures, and a separate Lock command so nobody else can work on your doc until you say its OK. 

VIEWS includes options for viewing the HTML code. The Page Format option lets you also assign some font and paragraph level spacing for the entire document.

Mailings lets you create mailmerge (or other merge) documents. Individuals are limited to sending 500 email documents per day. Enterprise accounts are unlimited.

There is a shared templates area, but there's not even a fraction of what you’ll find in Google or Microsoft. (But you should be able to open a template in Google Apps or Microsoft, save it, and import it into Zoho!) There are no graphic art search options as there are in Google or Microsoft and no word art (as in Microsoft -- but I find most of Microsoft's word art styles to be ugly).​

​​​You can export the documents from Zoho Writer to the following formats:
  • Microsoft Word - both .doc and .docx files 
  • OpenOffice Writer files 
  • RTF (Rich Text Format) files, which you should be able to open in virtually any other word processor 
  • Text only files 
  • HTML (including links to your blog) 
  • PDF creation (but not editing of imported PDFs)
You can import all the same formats plus graphics, up to 10 MB in size. Modern MS Word documents import fine, but some of the graphics may shift position.

There is a bookmarklet you can add to your browser toolbar to take any text you find online and clip it to your Zoho Writer account. This appears to work similarly to Evernote's bookmarklet. 

Currently, you cannot use Right to Left languages in Zoho Writer, but they say it is part of their road map for the future. ​

Other Zoho applications

In other Zoho apps, their Spreadsheet has a decidedly different interface than Google’s although (with a cursory look) it appears to support most of the same features. There is one toolbar for basic functions plus menus for publishing, sharing, and other tasks. It also let you embed a link in your blog or website to access a published spreadsheet.  You can create Macros and use VBA editing, too.

Zoho Mail is a good email hosting site. It’s main advantage over Gmail and Outlook is that it let’s you assign emails to folders, like Outlook, and also assign tags (like Gmail), so it’s very flexible. You can create rules for sorting, filing and responding to email. I like the fact  that, when sending an email from Zoho, you can attach any document from Zoho Docs, your own hard drive, and even from Google Docs! (I wish Gmail would let you do that.) Another nice feature is that you have links to all your available Zoho applications on the left hand side of the page, so you can switch back and forth easily. 

Zoho Notebook has grown to include many of the features of OneNote or Evernote. It lets you store text, audio, video, HTML, and embed URLs, RSS, lists, Zoho writer docs, spreadsheets, and presentations, and files. You can also create text files and spreadsheets directly within the notebook with a mini-Writer or -Sheet interface. You can share notebooks with others and publish them, too. If you already use Evernote, you might not need Zoho Notebook, but it does have a few features that Evernote doesn't have: You can embed video in the free Zoho Notebook -- you need the paid version of Evernote to do that. You can create real spreadsheets in Zoho, Evernote just uses tables.

If you use Zoho as your main workspace, combining the Notebook and the Writer clipping bookmark might be a nice way to centralize all your research in one location. But there are no desktop or phone applications for Zoho Notebook as there are for Evernote.

Zoho just recently updated its CRM application, which you could use free as a contact manager on steroids. The new version includes the ability to import data from your LinkedIn contacts. I haven't had time to experiment with it, but it would be interesting to see if you could use the free individual version of CRM as an alternate LinkedIn database. (If any readers try it, please let me know how it works.) You can import and attach Google docs to Zoho's CRM records as well.

Freelancers might like the Invoice application. Freelance HR professionals might want to take a look at Zoho'sRecruit and People applications if you're not already committed to another system.


If you are ready to take all your creative and business activity to the Cloud, Zoho has a lot to recommend it. If you prefer some of Google's applications (say, perhaps, its spreadsheet or Gmail), there's no reason not to have a Google application in one browser tab and Zoho apps in others. You can try all of Zoho's apps for free, and most stay free for up to three users. Some of the workgroup and internet communications features may not be feasible for that small a group, but Zoho's rates should be reasonable. Zoho also offers discounted rates for nonprofit corporations.

If I was forced to select only one web app site for my online work, I'd probably chose Zoho, although the ability to mix and match other apps is great. With Google, Zoho, and many other software and specialized online applications available, corporations, web workers, telecommuters, and small and home office entrepreneurs  have many more usable choices than ever before.​​

Keywords: Zoho, Writer, apps, office, SOHO, collaboration, business

Monday, December 26, 2011

Part 10, Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office


Zeal for Zoho for SOHO

Part A - The Zoho applications

Zoho isn’t competing for world domination, like Google or Microsoft, so when thinking of a musical or dramatic representation for Zoho, I keep coming back to Rossini’s opera Wilhelm Tell (known in English as William Tell). I particularly hear it with the Overture to the opera, especially the ending section which, those who are old enough, remember as the theme to 50’s TV’s The Lone Ranger (although others may be young enough to remembers the reruns). Remembering the opera’s famous dramatic scene, we wonder if Zoho’s Tell will be forced to shoot an Apple off his son’s head with bow and arrow? (Success may hinge on whether it’s an iPod or an  iPad.)

When not posing as a Texas Ranger, offers a wide variety of online services and is little David to Google's (or Microsoft's) Goliath. Zoho would be touted as a prototypical American start-up success story except for the detail that it was created in India. All its applications are accessible at Zoho is marketed mainly to businesses, but allows free use of its applications, even business apps, to individuals. Zoho offers many business solutions that are not available from Google. Zoho also has some of the most polite and helpful customer service reps in the world.

The ability to work with other people and other software is a priority for Zoho. It offers Zoho Gadgets, API’s and other tools to connect with your computer, your web pages, and home pages. It also has plugins for sharing info with Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Outlook, browser tools, mobile phone tools, and Facebook and Twitter resources. You can also embed Zoho mini-apps into your iGoogle page to mix and match access to your favorite applications.

Both Zoho and Google offer a gigabyte of free online storage for your files and backups, but 

Zoho Mail and several other applications give you the option of accessing files from your computer, from Zoho’s Docs, and also from Google Docs!

​Zoho's applications are divided into three main areas:

Productivity (includes most of your basic office apps):
  • Calendar (very similar to Google's)
  • Docs (your files collection)
  • Notebook - similar to Evernote or OneNote
  • Planner - To Dos and Reminders
  • Sheet - spreadhseets
  • ​Show - presentations
  • Writer - word processing

Collaboration includes:
  • Chat - IM chat on Zoho, Google, Facebook or Yahoo!; and options to set up instant chat with customers or blog readers (probably more practical for corporate blogs)
  • Discussions - for either Customer support or internal group or corporate communications
  • Mail Suite - email, individual or corporate
  • Meeting - Sponsor online meetings from your desktop or give remote support
  • Projects - A full featured group project management application
  • Share -  A public space to share your presentations, documents, spreadsheets and PDFs with the internet and other Zoho users.
  • Wiki - create a Wiki for your group
Business, includes full-featured, specialized business applications:
  • Assist - a customer service module
  • Books - an accounting package
  • BugTracker - as it implies, software to track bug reports
  • Creator - an application creator based on its database core; or use as a database.
  • CRM - a full-featured Customer Relationship Manager program, just recently updated
  • Invoice - create and track invoices
  • People - HR module for tracking employees
  • Recruit - HR program for tracking job applicants
  • Reports - create reports from your Creator database or from other data sources.

Zoho's applications are designed for collaboration. Zoho also takes collaboration to another level by allowing its applications to be used byGoogle business users, who can access many Zoho features from within their Google workspace. In particular, Zoho's CRM, Projects, Invoice and Creator can also be linked with Google enterprise accounts. Google users can then access these apps through Google's universal menu. You can also send files from Google to Zoho from within Google, allowing you to attach emails, files and other information to Zoho CRM, Invoice, Projects or Creator, as appropriate. There are other ways to tie together the two software suites when you connect the two:
  • You can set up web meetings in Zoho and have the schedule show up in Google Calendars.
  • You can create a Zoho Project from Google's Mail.
  • You can embed gadgets into Google Sites and Mail to show Project updates.
  • Project milestones are shown on Google Calendars.
  • You can sync Zoho Project items with Google tasks.
  • Zoho Creator has pre-designed fields to insert Google IDs, and more.
Note that, as an individual, you can use any Zoho application for free! Obviously, the collaboration applications are designed to be used with much larger groups. But if you want to check out CRM or Creator to see if it can meet your needs (or you want to use CRM as a high-powered Personal Information Manger or create a specialized database in Creator, go ahead. Also, Zoho offers generous discounts for nonprofits. 

To write about all these application would take an entire book (or maybe a stack of them).  We'll just discuss a few of the applications appropriate to small and home office users and freelancers in the next installment.

Keywords: Zoho, Writer, apps, office, SOHO, collaboration, business, Rossini

Friday, December 23, 2011

Part 9, Free and cheap software for the SOHO office.

The Mahlerian World of Google.

Earlier, we discussed the pros and cons of cloud computing for the home and small office. We will later look at Zoho and Microsoft’s online offerings, but today, we Google.

In our musical and dramatic representations of software companies, we earlier gave Microsoft the role of Wotan, the King of the Gods in Der Ring des Nibelungen for its need for world domination. In another article, we cast Microsoft as Falstaff in the opera of the same name because of its tendency to gobble up computer resources and tech companies. If there is any company which can rival Microsoft for world domination, it’s probably Google, which I think of in Mahlerian terms. So I give Google both vocal roles in Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the ultimate singer + big band combination, which requires lusty voices and full orchestra.

However, in memory of Google Labs, now being dismantled by Google, I dedicate a full-throated performance of “The Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, as reward for all their good work in hammering out experimental apps.

Google offers a wide range of software applications and services for individuals and businesses and continues to develop new projects. For the novice, Google's main weakness is that there is not a single place to see all of their offerings, although this comes close. When you create a free Gmail account and password, you also get access to other Google apps. Beginners should start at Google Docs. (You can also create a personal iGoogle home page with links to all your online tools.)

Part of the confusion is that Google has more services than just about any other entity on the web, including social media (Google+ and Orkut), YouTube, Picasa, Music, Reader, Google Maps and Earth, and Blogger. Also, Google invented and supports Android for phones and tablets, and is developing its own computer operating system, Chromium (not to be confused too much with their browser, Chrome) optimized for web applications. There are lesser known services, such as the simply named "Books" (which feels like walking into a huge library), Google Music, News and more. ​

Of course, there are a lot of services you can use for your home or small office, including:
  • Gmail
  • Google Apps (for Documents (word processing), Spreadsheets, Presentations, Form creation, and Drawing tools),
  • Docs - your online file storage area
  • Calendar - create different calendars for different uses, share some, keep others private, import and export to your heart's desire.
  • Voice - create one phone number that connects to all your phones, schedule which ones to ring when, get text messages of your voicemail, and more.
  • Sites - create your own websites
  • Translate - works with over 50 languages
  • Wallet - pay with your phone
  • Groups - you can create your own business mailing lists, chat and more
  • Talk - Internet messaging
  • Blogger - you're on it now!
Google Apps offers quite serviceable office applications. Serviceable enough that many companies and schools see Google’s Apps as a useful substitute to Microsoft Office. Google also has sharing tools to invite other people to read or edit your files. Up to 50 people can edit the same file simultaneously (which is useful in classroom situations). Those people can also use Chat to discuss their work at the same time. You can share the document with up to 200 people. Google’s apps are free for individuals

Gmail may be the most full-featured email tool online, with tools to automatically sort your mail and present you with a prioritized mailbox, and other personalization features, if you set them up. If you’ve used Outlook, you will notice that Gmail allows you to sort mail by tags, not folders, which might take a bit of getting used to. You can add several tags to a single email, so the system is actually much more flexible than Outlook. Gmail is the only web email application that has a number of add-on tools from third parties, including social media tools.

Google’s Calendar is the most popular calendar tool on the web and many other online tools will connect with it, too. Google’s Reader is probably the most popular RSS and Atom feed reader – go to almost any website, click on the RSS feed icon, and you get updates any time a new article is posted.

Google also has great online support, with lots of tutorials in written and video format. The most difficult part of using Google apps is learning what is available and experimenting with new tools as they are made available. (Not such a terrible thing.)

We’ll look a bit more at some Google Apps, concentrating on the word processing ​features because it is the most basic of apps, and bloggers (like me) use word processors all the time.

Google recently updated its Document writer tools. The number of English fonts has been expanded to 19. If you switch languages, appropriate fonts for that language show up.

Google has all the usual character formatting options. Styles are more simple than on Microsoft’s online apps, as is line spacing, but fonts are now set in points rather than HTML categories, which is a big improvement in formatting your document.

You can insert web links, equations, and pictures (with options for uploading a picture, doing a Google search, using Picasa, or looking for stock photography). You can add comments, footnotes, headers, footers, bookmarks, a table of contents, and page breaks.

Google will even translate documents into other languages. It has a new Web clipboard to exchange graphics, text, tables and more between Google Docs (click on the clipboard icon). You can create tables from scratch or copy them from a spreadsheet. You can keep the docs private or share with individuals (read only or edit) or publish to the web.

Mention should be made of Docs, the online storage area for all your files. Google advertises 1 GB of storage online, but it’s really more than that because the 1 GB doesn’t include your e-mail storage in Gmail, or your actual Google Docs. Whenever you upload a non-Google file to Docs, it does, indeed, count. But you are also given the option of translating the file into Google formats when you upload it. That 1 GB doesn’t include storage in YouTube, your photos in Picasa, or your Google+ files, so Google actually offers you much more than 1 GB.

Do you want templates? How does thousands and thousands of Google templates sound to you?

All in all, in the past year or so, Google has made some nice improvements to the Document interface, added some features, and made the entire experience a bit more like using a regular word processor. The Web clipboard is a nice new feature.

For most people, this is as much word processing as they need. For collaborating via the web, this may be as good as you get.

Is it better than Zoho or Microsoft Web Apps? I like Google’s cleaner interface compared to Microsoft. If you like the ribbon interface, Google only has 1 ribbon plus menus. For word processing, though, I prefer Zoho’s Writer, which combines both ribbons and menus.

​Some not-so-good changes: The newer version of Google Docs doesn’t let you edit HTML anymore, so Docs is not the tool to use to create and edit HTML You cannot now edit Google docs on your own computer like you could using Google Gears in the older version – Google says they’re fixing that.

Google’s Spreadsheet now includes pivot tables and has some nice formatting and table tools. Will it blow Excel out of the water? No. But it has most of the features that light spreadsheet users (like me) would need.

You can also create presentations. The Forms tool allows you to create forms for other people to fill out and then you can just import the data. Other tools include Drawings and use a new Tables application (in beta).

Ever since the creation of Google+ last summer, Google has been modernizing and unifying its interface across all its products. The changes appear to be mostly for the better (unless you just hate selecting icons instead of text).

Can you do real business with Google Apps? A study last summer  found that almost 20% of all the companies surveyed were using at least some Google applications. The largest implementations appear to be with very large corporations (of over 10,000 employees) and education (including many universities – which may be due to the fact that Google offers the service free for schools).

Do these companies stop using Microsoft Office products? Not likely. Accountants and number crunchers will still want the advanced features in Excel. Desktop publishers might prefer Word and page-layout programs. (One of the big holes in online offerings is the lack of a true desktop publishing application.)

There’s only one place that beats Google for the sheer number of different applications for online business. That’s, which we’ll look at in the next post.

Keywords: Google, Apps, applications, word processing, spreadsheet, Mahler, Verdi

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Part 8 - Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office

Pro and Con: Cloud applications vs. Installed applications

So far, in our discussions of office software we have discussed programs that you download to your computer (or, in a few cases, to your USB memory stick) and install. However, unless you've been living under a very large rock for the last five years (or haven't had internet access, which is about the same thing), you've heard about online software that exists "in the cloud" rather than on your computer. So, which is better for you?

Before we answer that, we should address: What exactly IS the cloud? Although the term suggests visions of an ethereal, heavenly all-encompassing internet, the cloud is simply a large computer with lots of internet connection capability. You can argue that it's not one computer but many, networked together, but it's basically the same. When you want to run some software, your browser connects to that server, and gives you the interface to do work. 

You can save your work on that computer, download it, or share it with others in a variety of ways. (This is not a new concept. Before desktop PCs became ubiquitous, most companies had servers and employees used “dumb terminals” to connect to the server and run applications. The Cloud is the same thing except the servers are off-site and the interfaces are much better.  Plus that terminal might even be a wireless phone, now, with much more computing power than that dumb terminal.)

What browsers work well for these services? Well, these days, almost all of them. Microsoft's Internet Explorer, is still the most popular browser, since it comes with nearly every installation of Windows, but Microsoft has been losing ground, particularly to the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and Google's Chrome (all for Windows and Macs and sometimes Linux). Safari specializes in the Macintosh. Opera is designed for speed, and is fun, but doesn't have as many features, and there are many others. All of them are free.

If you are comparison shopping, another factor is the existence of a large library of plug-ins or extensions. When I joined Google+ last summer, there were many more extensions to deal with G+ in Chrome (which was natural, since Chrome is another Google product). So I switched from Firefox to Chrome. Now, I'm toying with the idea of going back to Firefox (but I'm NOT leaving Google+).

Whichever browser you use, make sure you update to the latest version of that browser!!! It will have the latest features in security protection, the best speed, advanced HTML capability and other fancy internet tools. Using that three-year-old Internet Explorer on Aunt Lizzie's computer could leave you open to viruses and other malware attacks, and it's slower and some sites may simply not work with it. Note that the newest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer only works with systems going back to Vista. If you still use XP (or Aunt Lizzie is still using Windows 98 on her ancient, coal-fired Dell), you should switch to one of the other browsers.

So, why go online for your software? Here are some advantages:
    1. You can access your work from any computer that has a browser and internet access,
    2. Cross-platform usability (Generally, it doesn't matter if you use a Mac or PC or Linux computer as long as the browser is compatible.),
    3. Free or low cost use,
    4. Collaborators can easily work together on the same document, often at the same time,
    5. Ease-of-Use: User interfaces are often cleaner (but with fewer features than some desktop software),
    6. Easier sharing with colleagues, customers, users, and the public,
    7. Fast, no-cost, no-fuss updates: bug fixes and new features are easier to implement online, you don't need to install them,
    8. Tools now allow easier sharing between online and desktop applications,
    9. Many applications now have smart phone and tablet access and can coordinate with social media services,
    10. Many services (Google and Zoho, in particular) have enterprise tools which allow entire corporations, schools, even governments to work online.
Although  Google was not the first to offer Cloud (or Software as a Service - SaaS) applications, it has probably done more to popularize it than any other.

There are many online services that only offer one or two primary online products like SalesForce, or Evernote, or Slideshare, or specialty niche applications, like fundraising or email publishing.  Others, such as Google and Zoho, offer a wide range of products and most of them are free for individual users, too!

With online apps you can mix and match applications, tools and interfaces. For example, you might compose a report on Zoho Writer and add a SlideShare presentation, make a customized Google Map, and have the files available to business colleagues with SharePoint or a wiki. You can report on it using Google's Blogger or your free Microsoft small business website. You create your To Do list on Remember the Milk, which sends reminders via email to your Apple or Android phone, and use Tungle to check your work team's calendars to set up a web conference on Zoho Meetings. You can link to all of these with plug-in tools on your iGoogle homepage and your Firefox browser.The creative challenge is not just learning the tools, but learning how to combine them together to get work (or your job search) done effectively.

There are a few dark linings to the silver light of cloud computing you need to consider before going online for all your software needs:
  1. You must have internet access to get to your work. (Some services have downloadable versions of some of their software to allow you to work offline and then update your online files.)
  2. Telecommuters and freelancers, especially, need an emergency plan in case your home internet access goes down (such as using a public library, bookstore, coffee shop, or a friend's home).
  3. For travelers, airport and hotel Wi-Fi access or Mi-Fi routers could be expensive.
  4. Security needs to be considered, especially if you work with with proprietary, financial, legal, medical or personal information.
  5. Some free online services are supported by advertising, which might be mildly annoying.
  6. Different file formats may create some translation problems when going back and forth between different programs. You need to learn details about which programs have what features.
  7. Technophobes and people who do not like change will not be comfortable online. There are lots of online resources for learning, though.
  8. Just as on your desktop computer, you should backup your online files in case of disaster. Yes, cloud apps do automatic backups, but what happens if the company you use goes out of business and pulls the plug? It's rare, and that's not likely to happen to the more popular sites, like Google, but it could happen to some smaller ones.
  9. If you deal with creative and intellectual property, be sure to check who has access to it on some services (especially video, sound and photo sharing sites). Read the user agreement to make sure you maintain ownership once you upload it to that service.
Many services offer free access to individuals or small groups of people -- making them excellent value for job hunters, consultants, freelancers, some telecommuters, collaborators, and very small businesses. When your needs grow, you usually can pay by the month (with an option for annual discounts) per user. Some databases, however, have a tiered structure depending on the number of records. Some services, such as Evernote, offer their services for free as long as you upload under 1GB of data per month or need advanced services.

Adding services is usually quite easy. If they are paid services, you do need to keep track of the costs because all those monthly costs can build up if you use a wide variety of services. Freelancers who may need to use certain services to work with each employer need to check those costs carefully when figuring out what to charge their clients.

If you are new to online office applications, the best places to begin to look are Google Apps and

Microsoft also has some very good online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These can be excellent for collaborating online or for after hours work from your home computer, even if you don't own those applications. But the online feature set is a bit more restricted and Microsoft generally assumes you also have an installed version to work on, somewhere.

We will look specifically at Google and Zoho applications next in this series.

Tags: Cloud, SAAS, apps, Google, Zoho, Microsoft

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Part 7: Free and Cheap Office Software for the SOHO Office

Zenware – Simple Writing

Since today we are talking not only about particular software programs, but also of a philosophy of software based on simplicity and minimalist, it seems appropriate to celebrate this movement with composer, Eric Satie, whose most famous work today is Gymnopedie Nr. 1 which combines harmonic, rhythmic and melodic simplicity, almost to the extreme. This was certainly at odds with the ever-growing complexity in 19th century classical music (which would continue through much of the 20th century with works by Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, just to name a few). In spite of these trends, Satie sought simplicity.

Satie's Gymnopedies are thought to owe their title to the following poem stanza. (See
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d'or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d'ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their sarabande to the gymnopaedia
from Les Antiques ("The Ancients")
by J.P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926)

Even 120 years later, this simple piece has been adapted, transcribed, and arranged many times and the philosophy of the music continues to influence both minimalism and ambient music. Zenware tries, through simplicity, to put the emphasis not on software features but back on the writer's muse, where, inevitably, it really needs to rest.

If you've used a lot of high-end software, you've spent time searching through a series of menus or ribbons just to find the command you want. You also may find that you need to go through several steps to accomplish relatively simple tasks. Pop-ups or squiggly lines demand your attention for spell-checking and grammar-checking, and the ubiquitous reminders of the Are-you-really-sure-you-want-to-do-this? nature can be maddening at times. Throw in widgets, wizards and whats-its, docks, system trays, and toolbars and you have so many features to play with you can't do any work. (If you don't believe this, open every toolbar in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer and try to write something.)

There's an entire class of software that strives to end these distractions and have as little as possible get between you and your creative process. Mostly for writing, they strip away all unnecessary commands and menus and options. Collectively, these programs are often called Zenware.

This is, by the way, one of the basic precepts of the Frugal Guidance blog. One which many frugal computer users should appreciate. Aim for simplicity, not the expensive, whiz-bang, complicated programs (unless, of course, those complicated programs can help you produce simple work).

A few Zen writing tools:
Most of these programs present you with a blank or black (or tastefully decorated) screen with few or no menus or other distractions. The work window usually takes up the full screen and you may need to push an F-key to even see a menu.

Some of these programs have the option of using a totally black screen with green or yellow text. Older writers might remember when this was the way most word processors approached writing. (Got DOS?)

Some programs also offer soothing musical or environmental sound backgrounds, handy to block out noise of office machines and other workers -- or just to put the writer into a creative mood.

The idea is to encourage you and your writing inspiration. Even if you like full-featured word-processors, you should try some of these out for your creative and/or journaling projects. (A paper journal may also be a useful option, too.)

A by-product of using these programs is that they tend to use the entire screen, so you can see much more of your writing while you are editing.

Other zen-ish programs:

  • Anxiety (Mac only) Minimalist To Do list manager
  • Ta-da  from 37 Signals (web based) Ta-Da's To Do
  • TeuxDeux  (web based) Yet another simple To Do list app
  • Notational Velocity (Mac only) A bare-bones note-taking program. Simple search and notes, automatically saved.
  • Spirited Away (Mac only) and Swept Away (Windows) simply take all those windows that collect on your desktop during the work day and minimize them if you haven't used them for so many minutes. This keeps your desktop cleaner and, in theory, helps you concentrate on the task at hand. (Unless you were already distracted from the task at hand and lost the window you were supposed to be working on.)
  • DropCloth  (Windows) – turns everything you're NOT working on dark on the screen.
  • BackDrop  works similarly for Macs.

If you know of other Zenware programs, please add them in the comments. (Anybody know of a Zen-like blog HTML editor?

Coming soon: Office software flies to the cloud.

Tags: Zenware, minimalist, simplicity, writing zen Satie

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Part 6, Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office

Even Lesser Known Office Suite Options

Crystal, Celframe, Coral, Calligra & KOffice (and a few more)

It's difficult to find a way to put all these software players into a single literary, movie, or operatic reference (as we've tried to do, with varying success, in earlier parts of this series). So let's just imagine them as potential characters in the upcoming movie of The Hobbit. Crystal would obviously be a reference to one of the magical communication orbs the wizards sometimes use. Celframe nicely describes the architecture of a room in a Hobbit's underground home, or a minor monster in a Dwarvish mine. Coral and Calligra are obviously Elvish characters, and KOffice sounds vaguely Orc-ish to me. Trying to meld all these characters into a single scene or plot would take many pages – and would certainly exceed the patience of this blog's readers. So let's talk about the software, instead:

Crystal Office  has some nice “Lite” office programs for Windows which have good functionality, but won't win any competitions based on features:
  • NotePro is a Rich Text Format-based word processor, which is more advanced than WordPad and includes spell checking, a calculator, tables, and bookmarking. The RTF format is an older, basic formatting specification that should make it easy to import or paste into almost any other program.
  • DayMate is a schedule organizer which allows you to schedule reminders, start applications, shut down your computer, dial phone numbers, send messages and open web sites.
  •  CellPro is a speadsheet application and ChartPro is a charting program.
The entire suite is $31.95 (more for a backup disk), or you can buy the individual programs separately. If you like simplicity, ease of use, and quick loading software, these are worth a try. If you live by the calendar and appointments, DayMate sounds particularly intriguing.

Also of note are a few extra programs available on the Crystal site:
  • ClipPlus is a clipboard manager that collects text and graphics clips.
  •  Maple and Maple Professional are outline managers that allow you to collect text, graphics and files, all in a hierarchical outline structure. If you do research or collect lots of data, but find that notebook applications, such as OneNote and Evernote, don't have the organizational structure you want, the Maples definitely are worth a look.
The site is currently advertising a Winter sale of 20% off if you enter the code (located on the banner of the home page).

If you are interested just in simple word processing, Jarte  (Windows only) may be similar to Crystal's NotePro. Adding to the features already found in Microsoft’s free WordPad software, it adds things like spell-check, headers/footers, tables and more, and it’s free.

If you need a full-featured word processor without the rest of an office suite, you can also look at the open source, free AbiWord. It is a stand-alone word processor which functions similar to Libre/OpenOffice's Writer or Word 2003. Its small size and modest system requirements make it perfect for older Windows computers and for new netbooks, too, as well as Mac OS X and Linux machines. It can also be run from a USB memory stick. Despite its small size, it is a full-featured word processor that has gathered a loyal following. It's well worth the download to try it. It's part of the GNOME project by GNU, which someday may be an entirely different blog post.

Headquartered in New York City, Celframe may be the largest U.S. producer of office software that most people have never heard of. Celframe offers application suites that appear to be popular with large corporations, governments, and schools. Its Celframe Office 2008 includes a full suite of applications including: Write, Spreadsheet, Power Presentation, Draw, Data Access, Studio (a graphics program), Photoalbum, Mail, Backup, Note Maker, Publisher, PDF Maker, and XML Maker. Celframe offers four different suites, ranging from Celframe Office Home for $62, to Celframe Office Pro for $170. (The suites are all different, depending on the intended audience. You need to see the website to compare.)

Celframe doesn't directly import newer Microsoft XML formats. It does offer, a free converter called, unsurprisingly, Celframe Converter. Otherwise the suites will open earlier Microsoft files plus OpenOffice formats, too. (It's graphics programs support Adobe Photoshop, Flash and CorelDraw formats.) Its interface is similar to Office 2003.
The suite can be run from a USB flash drive. You can download a trial version for 30 days. Reviews say that the programs are fairly light in functionality.

Upon a query, a Celframe spokesperson did say that they are planning to update its software in 2012, including cloud apps. This makes sense since other vendors (including Google and Zoho) are making large inroads in the corporate, government and education markets which appear to be the bread and butter of Celframe. Beta testing is expected in the middle of 2012.

Unless you have a need for the complete suite of packages and need to run it from a USB flash drive, it's hard to imagine a scenario where this would be the most economical or most powerful suite one could get for the money. If, however, you run an international conglomerate, this might be a nice, economical package for a few thousand employees.

If you are a Linux/Unix user, you should take a look at the free KOffice which is an open source suite of office and graphics applications. A “stable” version, KOffice 2.3.3 was released last March. Versions may also eventually be made for Windows and Mac OS X.

Of note, KWord is a frame-based word processor which might be excellent for desktop publishing and page layout, with master pages, graphic frames and other features. Other programs include KCells (spreadsheet) and Showcase (presentations). Other related open source software programs include Karbon (vector drawing), Krita (bitmap graphics), KPlato (project management), Kexi (data management), and Kivio (diagramming). The graphics programs, Krita and Karbon, are both considered stable and ready for "real" work. Interestingly, this project was boosted in 2010 by the support of Nokia.

Just as the OpenOffice community has split into groups, the KOffice community has an offshoot called Calligra which is creating versions of the KOffice suite with different names. So far, the software is still in beta testing. For Windows users, this could be the better bet for the future, but the software is currently only available for Linux. Watch for announcements for Windows and Mac versions as well as smartphone capability. The Calligra suite uses the same file formats as Libre/Open Office, which might be good for interoperability, eventually. This is also an open source project, so the applications are free.

Coral WordPerfect Office Professional  is another office suite that is often loaded on personal computers as a trial product. It includes a word processor, Quattro spreadsheet, Paradox database, slideshow and presentation units, data analysis, a digital notebook, a sticky note app, and a light email client. You can buy versions of the suite from the Coral website, but you might do better shopping other online retailers for a better price.

WordPerfect, at one time, was one of Microsoft Word's best competitors and it's a shame it wasn't able to survive Microsoft's marketing onslaught. (I think the same of Lotus 1-2-3 which was, in its heyday, much better than Excel.) Coral, known for its graphics programs, later bought up the rights and today lots of people do good work with this suite. Although a bit pricy, the software has stood the test of time and claims to have good interoperability with Microsoft products.

Coming next: Zenware

Tags: AbiWord, Crystal, Celframe, WordPerfect, Coral, KOffice, Calligra, Jarte, Maple, software, SOHO, office

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office, Part 5

Part 5: Two Chinese options: Kingsoft and Yozo

We continue our musical presentations of Microsoft Office competitors with our two very distinct Chinese software companies. One can almost sympathize with these companies because they have internal and external pressure to quickly bring Western-style software and interfaces, in many languages, to both the children of the Cultural Revolution as well as children of the Social Media revolution. With the Chinese reputation for wide-scale, unabashed copyright infringement and interface robbery, it makes sense, then, that our subjects for the day are performing in the veddy, veddy British Gilbert and Sullivan comedy, Pirates of Penzance.

We cast Kingsoft Software (although we could probably go either way) as Frederic, the not-so-bright 21-year-old who has just finished his enforced apprenticeship to the pirates, only to discover he was born on February 29th and therefore has another 63 years until his 21st birthday and the end of his apprenticeship. We cast Yozo as Frederic's romantic interest, the not-so-pretty Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley.

We could have just as easily cast our friends into the roles of the Pirate King (which they might find insulting) and the General, except asking any native Chinese speaker to sing the rapid-paced, tongue-twisting patter song "I am the very model of a modern Major-General," would be just a little bit cruel. FWIW, by the end of Pirates of Penzance the pirates discover themselves to be loyal subjects of Queen Victoria and the girls (including our heroine, Mabel) all end up happily married. Ah, if only software company relationships were so easily resolved.

So, now that we are thoroughly entertained with Victorian comedy, we return to our software reviews, since these have as many twists and turns as a Gilbert & Sullivan plot.

Hong Kong-based Kingsoft Software now offers a free Kingsoft Office 2012 and Kingsoft Office Pro 2012, available on Both offer three modules: Writer, Spreadsheet and Presentation. Most of the interesting new features are in the Pro version:
  • Kingsoft appears to be the first company to successfully rip-off, er, emulate the new Microsoft ribbon interface. From the few small screen shots on their website (and a few reviews), you have to look hard to see a difference. However, they also added the ability to switch between their menu interface (similar to MS Office 2003) and their ribbon interface. This is something that many, if not most users wished had been included when Microsoft released Office 2007.
  • Kingsoft Office Pro also advertises “Section tabs,” which are what we would probably call “Document tabs,” another feature some people wish was in Microsoft's programs.
  • It has a Visual Basic Editor
  • A “Paragraph Adjustment Tool” which offers mouse-controlled paragraph formatting
  • Macro creation tools
  • File encryption tools
  • New table styles and table expansion tools
  • Cover page templates
  • The ability to save in PDF format and also open and edit PDF files
  • The suites continue to advertise the ability to open all Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files (including 2007 and 2010) and save in Microsoft 2003 formats, so you can open Kingsoft files directly in Microsoft products without translation.
  • All this is in a small, downloadable file which, after installation, reportedly runs briskly
  • The Pro version costs $69.95
Neither the free nor the pro versions offer a grammar checker, which is a shame because one occasionally runs into language on the Kingsoft website that is incomprehensible in English.

Although Kingsoft seems to be aiming both barrels at Microsoft with their triple hitter (how's that for mixing metaphors?), they also seem to be aiming at both Microsoft and OpenOffice (and a lot of other folks, including South Korea's Thinkfree Office) with their free version. (All their feature comparison charts freely ignore the fact that both OpenOffice and Microsoft offer other programs in their suites.)

Kingsoft's free version is a more limited package, which is no surprise. What it does NOT include are the switchable interface, the ribbon interface, the paragraph adjustment tool, “section” tabs, Writer cover templates, or Presentation templates—in other words, most of the new stuff.

Some reviewers have noted that the free version is quite small, starts up very quickly, and has more versatility than most free software, offering WordPad speed with advanced functionality. Being a free version, it is available for download from a number of sources, including

The older Kingsoft Office 2010 advertised that it was usable in English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese. The website for the new version does not give any information about which languages are supported. (It seems unlikely that they would have removed any of the Asian languages.) However, the new website offers options to click on flags for the U.S., Germany, France, China and Japan. One might infer that French and German could now be supported, too, but je ne c'est pas.

It is not clear whether the Pro version allows a trial period before purchasing, although some web sites appear to offer one. All customer support is online or by email.

Kingsoft also offers a new, free Kingsoft Office Suite for Android, for use on Android phones and tablets. It allows you to open, edit and create Writer and Spreadsheets and open, edit, but not create presentations. Curiously, they just announced yesterday (on December 14, 2011) that the software is now free and people who purchased it earlier can apply for a refund. The Android software appears to be available in the Android marketplace in English, Japanese and Chinese.

In conclusion, Kingsoft is aggressively marketing its new software with a free version as well as reasonably low pricing in its Pro version. If they can survive the barrage of infringement lawsuits likely from Microsoft (and Chinese courts might make that possible), it sounds like an interesting product. There are surprisingly few reviews on the web from reputable journalists, so far, and no real in-depth reviews.

If you are not bothered by the Chinese propensity to steal intellectual property (and other geopolitical issues), you probably should take a look at the free version of the software. If you have an Android tablet, you'd be silly not to try their Android app. (I still wonder about the true functionality of office software on Android phones.) People using older computers or netbooks might be pleased with the small file sizes and requirements to run this suite.

Those who rarely use any software other than word processing, spreadsheets and presentations and, thus, don't need easy compatibility with other programs (say, database, page layout, or email hosting), could possibly find much of what they need in these tidy little packages.

Yozo Office 2010 (formerly EIOfiice 2009) is marketed by a Chinese software company named EIOffice (a.k.a. Evermore Integrated Office) that claims to be the largest seller of software to the Chinese government. The suite, available in Chinese, Japanese, French and English, was created as a Chinese competitor to Microsoft Office.

The 2009 version of the software was available for $14.95. The 2010 version, now available from, shoots the price up to $41.95 for a single license. Yozo Office is available for Windows, Linux, Meego and Android.

Yozo Office offers word processing, spreadsheet and presentation capabilities in a unified program (not separate modules). A screenshot shows an impressive-looking "Integrated Science Editor" for biology, chemistry, physics, math, geography and flowcharts. It imports Office 2010 and earlier files and OpenOffice formats and appears to export to new Microsoft Office formats. It does offer PDF creation in addition to its proprietary formats, and includes a "binder" to bring documents, spreadsheets and presentations together in a single file. Befitting the pirate reputation of Chinese software companies, its features list includes "boarders" (although they probably mean "borders").

This is a Java-based program that runs on top of Windows (or Linux, Android or Symbian), so the big question is whether it runs visibly slower on Windows or not. (You should also check to see if it has the same font display problems of the Korean ThinkFree suite.) You can download a trial version for 15 days before paying for a license to continue using the program. A downloadable user manual, templates, tutorials and sample documents are available only with a paid license.

Yozo Office has expanded their Chinese-only cloud-computing platform to other languages (including, apparently, English). It would be interesting to compare their cloud application offerings with that of much larger Google and Check out for more information.

Probably the biggest negative to trusting your information to a Chinese online firm is the country's reputation for pirating software, technology and intellectual property. One wonders how safe sensitive information would be government or private hackers. (To be fair, if I was a Chinese businessman using Google, I might also wonder how safe my information was from intrusion from U.S. Homeland Security and the NSA, too.)

Tags: Yozo, Kingsoft, software, SOHO, office, webapps