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Zoho – the “Safer Office”

(Updated)
It’s somewhat ironic that in the very days I’ve just written about Duet, the joint SAP-Microsoft product, I am seriously thinking of escaping from Microsoft-prison, and switching to the most promising WebOffice (Office 2.0) suite. Perhaps I am part of the trend that prompted Vinnie to consider Duet a “nice-to-have” only, but generally too little, too late. (I actually disagree with him, Microsoft’s lock on corporate users is far heavier than on individuals or small businesses.. but that’s another discussion). Update: I’ve had this post half-written for a while, and now we’re getting warned left and right: “use Word in safe mode“, “don’t open Word attachments from Outlook” – the fix from Microsoft is not expected until mid-June. WTF? That’s three weeks away! I am sick of it, just as much as I am sick of Outlook forgetting where the address book is again, freezing on me frequently, and I am especially sick of MS crippling my computer via the automatic Windows updates. While I can’t get rid of Windows (just yet), I can certainly get rid of buggy unsafe Office. Office 2.0, here I come!

But what’s Office 2.0? First of all, terminology: some call it Office 2.0, others Web Office: the point is to have web-based applications that are accessible via a browser, without any download, that will store the data files on the web, too (sorry AjaxWrite, you are out), thus making all my stuff accessible from any computer, any time (as long as I have Internet access).

I’ve been using Writely for a while, so when I first found Zoho Writer, it was a non-event: both editors are equally good, convenience wins, no need to switch. Are any of these Microsoft Word killers? Scoble would laugh it off, they would not stand a feature-by-feature comparison. So what? I am part of the 90% crowd that barely uses 10% of Word’s functionality anyway. Then I found Thumbstack, a web-based “mini-powerpoint”, that allows me to share and collaborate on presentations easily. It does not do a lot of fancy things, amongst them the animated transitions – great, so now I can focus on substance in my presentations, rather than disruptive entertainment. What about a spreadsheet? Zoho Sheet is easy to use, and is aesthetically pleasing – a point so often missed. Is it as poweful as Excel? Of course not. But my Excel knowledge is probably on the level of Lotus 1-2-3 anyway, so for me, Zoho is the Excel-killer. I also have Stikipad, Calcoolate, Box.net … and a few others – all in my Firefox “Office 2.0″ bookmark.

The only problem is, when I am not on my own PC, sometimes I forget what’s where… and of course my data files reside with the various service providers, and I am not completely at ease with my digital life being so fragmented. See where I am heading? This move to the Web is liberating, but the plethora of different services causes a bit of chaos. There are two basic concepts to deal with the chaos:

  • Some of the Web storage companies, like Box.net, Omnipage, Openomny ..etc .. offer their open API’s to application providers, or make one-to-one tight integration and propose that we store all our data centrally, no matter which application accesses them. This is definitely a step forward, in terms of data management, but I am still dealing with point applications, without any integration between them..
  • The second concept obviously is one-stop-shopping: is there one service that offers ALL the MS Office capabilities (with the common simplification we just discussed)? The answer is increasingly yes: Zoho is releasing new applications at an impressive speed, and they come with 1G of storage. While I would not have left Writely for the sake of Zoho writer only, the abililty to have everyting under one hood is just too damn tempting. I can have Writer, Sheet, Presenter (due out in the very near feature) all from the same source, my data is stored at the same place, and although currently these applications require individual registrations, in the near future they will be available with a single sign-on.

The Zoho guys also promise integration between these applications, and I have reason to believe they will be able to pull it off – after all, they already have the Zoho Virtual Office, which incorporates several of these offices in an integrated fashion. AdvantNet, a 500-person company (of which about a 100 work on Zoho) runs entirely on Zoho Virtual Office. Currently Virtual Office is a downloadable server-side product accessible via the Web, but Zoho will offer a Web-hosted version in the future. Without integration an Office 2.0 is not really Office 2.0, just a collection of online applications. (For those who may not remember, it took Microsoft long years to achieve some level of integration in their Office; for several years and throughout several releases “integration” was copy/paste, and quite painful as such.)

Zoho leverages a good deal between the different product offerings: some parts of Virtual Office make it into the individual applications, and vice versa, some of the standalone products become part of Virtual Office. For example 1G storage is now an implicit part of using the applications, but Zoho Drive will soon be available as a standalone service, too. Ah, and let’s not forget about Zoho Creator, which is exactly what the name suggests: an easy web-application creator. They even go beyond traditional Office functionality, into the transactional world buy providing Zoho CRM, a web based, or downloadable full-featured CRM system. Fully featured means supporting the full sales-related workflow, including vendors and purchase orders all the way to sales orders and invoicing… definitely more then just a “glorified contact manager” as the other guy is often referred to.

Listening and responding to customers is an area a lot of companies fail nowadays – Zoho seems to excel here, too. As part of research for this post I looked at earlier reviews, and several features reported “missing” from Writer are already included in the current product. There is a direct feedback link from the applications, and the longest response time I experienced was a few hours – sometimes it’s just minutes. In comparison, a question I posted on the Writely forum over two weeks ago is still unanswered – I guess those guys are busy finding their place in Google.

Summing it up: Zoho pumps out new applications at an amazing rate (check the site for a few more I haven’t even mentioned). While one by one most of their applications are comparable to at least another web-based application, I am not aware of any other company offering such a complete suite, with that level of support and the realistic prospect of integrating the applications soon. For me the choice is obvious: Zoho is my Office 2.0 Suite.

I’d like to touch on another issue, namely the value of being first, “original” vs. doing something better the second time – but for the sake of readability I’ll break it out to another post – soon.

Update (5/27): Assaf, who made blog conversations really trackable by bringing us co.mment read my post and gave the Zoho Virtual Office a try. His overall impression is positvie, but he also includes some criticism – just as he should. One thing I learned is that Zoho listens and moves fast. Another obeservation (of mine) is that they seem to move in iterations:

  • The downloadable Zoho Virtual Office has been around for a while (they run a 500-person company on it)
  • Now they are focusing on individual “Office” components making them available on the Web
  • Finally they will relase their own hosted version of Virtual Office probably incorporating may improvements they’ve made in the standalone products.

Update (6/6 -yes, the famous 666!): Google Spreadsheet is out, the blogosphere is abuzz, and I won’t have the time to write today, but at least I wanted to point to Ismael’s article, since he arrives to the same conclusions I did…

Comments

  1. Sridhar Vembu says:

    Zoli:

    Thank’s for the kind words about Zoho. Software-as-service model does offer a safer computing experience.

    On my laptop, I find myself often turning off virus protection, which has become annoying and intrusive lately, slowing everything down to a crawl. With more and more my data living in the cloud, I find that I don’t need as much virus protection at the client. At least until they figure out how to write AJAX viruses [I hope not!] …

    Sridhar

  2. Zoli Erdos says:

    Sridhar, my point exactly – the fact that it takes a minute to open an Excel spreasdheet may not be Excel’s fault – could be Norton or McAfee…. likewise, the fact than when Outlook receives emails in the background, my laptop comes to a hault is likely due to the virus scanning process. But as a user, I really don’t care who to “blame”, the point is that I am not doing any more complax tasks I used to when I bough this laptop, yet it feels less and less adequate – we’re being forced to buy more and more powerful machines only to stay safe (???).

    The old, crawling laptop could become a screamer if my most frequently used applications and data are “in the cloud”. In fact PC makers muts hate this trend, since all of a sudden we don’t need bigger disks and faster processors:-) (sure we do for multimedia, but I don’t do multimedia on ALL computers).

    But frankly, this whole “Word safety warning” just gave my writeup an additional angle, that of security. I was on the edge of moving “to the cloud” anyway, simply for mobility, ease of access from any machine anywhere. In the past year I switched between 5 laptops – it’s a pain, and I really have no reason to do so … that’s the real beauty of SaaS.

  3. Sridhar Vembu says:

    On a related note, once SaaS takes off in a big way, we can chuck our laptop and move to a model of cell phone plugged into a USB based LCD monitor (I hate those small screens). A good Javascript + Flash capable browser in the cell phone is all that is needed.

    I wrote about it at http://blogs.adventnet.com/perma/5042/mobile-phone-as-pc.html

    Sridhar

  4. Zoli Erdos says:

    Sridhar,

    Your vision is getting close to reality… Just in these days I’ve read Samsung had to ban using their own latest phone in their corporate facilities, cause they are worried that all their corporate secrets can be stolen on a phone with 8G :-)

    And how about a virtual screen and input device, also from Samsung?  I wonder what kind of battery this thing would need though…

    (Btw, would you mind contacting me with your email address.. mine is available from the “About me” link, then clicking on email me. Thanks)

  5. If SaaS picks up then I no longer need magentic disks, solid state (NAND) is good enough. I don’t need a killer CPU, but one that’s energy efficient and cheap. I can trade the CD/DVD bay for a multi-RF chip.

    Imagine a notebook that’s under 1lb, mostly screen, keyboard and ink. It has enough battery life to last a day and charge on a dime, and can hop from one network to another.

    I think SaaS will have a huge impact on the PC design, we’ll end up with PCs that are unlike the ones we use today. Phones will go more towards audio/video convergence.

  6. Zoli Erdos says:

    That’s a blogger’s dream Notebook :-) Until then, here’s this one (too bad it’s concept only)

  7. Microsoft – Adobe: Much Ado About Nothing

    There is a lot of fuss

  8. Google Spreadsheet vs Zoho Sheet

    As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I save you about 950 words, instead let these two pics show you why I am staying with Zoho Sheet, despite all the hoopla around Google Spreadsheet. I imported the same Excel Spreadsheet into both …

  9. Office 2.0 – Under the Radar Event at SAP Labs

    IBDNetwork’s Under the Radar event at SAP Labs was a lively evening with full house, good discussion and four exciting companies.  Prior to the presentations moderator Mike Arrington (TechCrunch) and the panel discussed pro’s and con’s of Office 2…

  10. Anonymous says:

    My Office 2.o is a 4 GB USB stick with software that is residing completely there.

    Prefered sources are http://loosewire.typepad.com/blog/2005/03/a_directory_of_.html

    http://www.portablefreeware.com/all.php and

    http://www.theinfobox.com/index.php/Portable_USB_Apps

    Its fullblown apps like Openoffice, Firefox, Thunderbird and a full bucket more

  11. Recently, the idea of building custom business applications has become “trendy.” Virtually overnight two systems, ZoHo Creator and Coghead, have been getting a lot of attention from bloggers and the media. However, people are overlooking the most time-tested source of web-based platforms for custom-built business applications. There has been a system on the market for over 5 years successfully doing the same thing ZoHo Creator and Coghead aim to do. This system is Interneer Intellect.

    Interneer Intellect holds patents protecting much of the instant application building capabilities. This fact, on top of the years of development it has already undergone, inhibits ZoHo from having a hope to ever be able to compete (in my opinion).

    If you are considering using ZoHo Creator or Coghead to build custom applications for your business I would suggest also looking into Interneer Intellect. All three systems offer their own unique strong points… but Interneer Intellect by far has the longest list of functions and capabilities. This in itself is reason enough to register at Interneer’s site and view the product demo and/or white papers.

    http://www.interneer.com/landingpages/gaw/rpd.asp

    http://www.interneer.com

  12. Microsoft is Freeing Users from Office-Prison

    The likely reason news of Microsoft’s Office 2007 “Kill Switch” did not cause a lot more uproar is that it surfaced during Thanksgiving week: “Buried in a Knowledge Base article that Microsoft published to the Web on November 14 are details …

  13. Do you work for Zoho?

  14. Zoli Erdos says:

    No, I don’t, but I am an Advisor to Zoho. However, I wrote this post *before* this role started.

    Now, who are you, Mr. Anonymous?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] week by week, was soon joined by Zoho Sheet, and one had to be blind not to see the benefits of a complete Suite on the Net.  Today Zoho has a million users, is recognized as a leader along with Google, has made [...]

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