I recently came across a web service called ZCubes, which is one of those browser-based portal apps that lets you do virtually everything under the sun - social networking, develop a website, browse the Web using a special built-in browser, create media (pictures, audio, video), add RSS feeds and gadgets, paint, handwriting, etc. It claims to be able to manage over 30 file formats.

I'm usually pretty skeptical of apps that try to do too much - because in this era of 'best of breed' apps, people will usually choose a variety of branded apps for specific purposes (e.g. Photobucket or Flickr for photos, del.icio.us for bookmarks, YouTube for video, etc). Either that, or they will choose a portal solution from a big company that they can 'trust' - e.g. Yahoo, MSN or Google.

Technology behind ZCubes

ZCubes though interests me because of the advanced ways it enables users to interact with and create content. Parag Mathur, who is VP of Product Management at ZCubes, told me that they use "the latest in next generation web technologies." He said that ZCubes marries client-side web technologies like DHTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, DirectX, XML/XSLT, and VML with server-side technologies like ASP.NET and J2EE. The ZPaint functionality uses VML vector graphics (supported only in IE) and they are in the process of developing support for SVG to make the platform compatible with multiple browsers.

That's a lot of acronyms! But the nutshell is that ZCubes relies heavily on browser-based technologies - so no plug-ins or downloads are required.

In terms of using ZCubes, the idea is that it allows users to create "experiences" - ranging from the creation of personal pages, greeting cards, posters, portals, research/academic papers and more. Making these experiences easy to use is also key, as noted in a recent ZCubes blog post - e.g. providing simple drag-drop based utilities.

Test Driving ZCubes

In my tests of the product, I found the technology to be promising - but at this time the UI still needs a lot of work and I'm not yet convinced of the utility to most people. Right now there aren't any compellingly unique features that will draw people from MySpace or YouTube into the ZCubes world. Hopefully this will change over the next year or so, because I like the vision of the developers and the product focus on encouraging people to be creative on the Web.

Unfortunately at this time, ZCubes only works in the IE browser. They will release a Firefox version shortly, however it won't be able to use the advanced features in ZCubes. Hopefully this too will change over time.

The Future

Going forward, ZCubes says their primary focus is on collaboration. This includes developing shared 1D, 2D and 3D spaces, chat, and a NetClipboard (a web-based clipboard where you can store content in any structure). These functionalities will be based on a new technology called NetVariables that they have developed and submitted for a patent. In addition, the company is also developing a "simple" scripting language for ZPaint, that can be used to create/record/replay and animate drawings - which will also use SMIL 2.0. Other things in development are ZSlideShow, which will be similar to PowerPoint, and multi-layered ZCubes (a ZCube inside another ZCube up to infinite levels). They're also currently developing partnerships with online storage providers.

In summary, ZCubes is all about letting people create and mix different types of content - and share the results with others. Which is an admirable goal! It just needs a bit more UI spit and polish, along with a really compelling kick ass feature or two to draw in new users.