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.

richard macmanus