counter on godaddy
post

SaaS and the Shifting Software Business Model

Barely two years ago we debated whether little-known Zoho was worth paying attention to. The majority view was that their Office applications were weak contenders that would never challenge the Microsoft suite’s position. I think I was in the minority stating that I really did not need more than 10-20% of Word or Excel’s functionality, but online-anywhere access and collaboration made the switch worthwhile.

Today Robert Scoble reports he is seeing online applications wherever he turns:

Today I’d say the skill set is shifting once again. This time to something like Zoho Writer or Google’s Docs. Because if you visit Fast Company’s offices in New York, for instance, they want to work with you on your copy in live time. Fast Fast Fast is the word of the day. It’s in our title, after all. Now some people still use Word, but last time I was there one of the editors told me he was moving everything over to Google’s Docs because it let him work with his authors much more effectively.

These are no longer yesterday’s wannabe applications. Zoho Sheet recently added Macro and Pivot Table support , going way beyond the average user’s needs (and certainly exceeding my spreadsheet skills, which are stuck somewhere at the Lotus 1-2-3 level). Zoho Writer today added an equation editor and LaTex support. Heck, I don’t even know latex from silicone, what is it doing in my editor? smile_wink
As I found out it’s important for Zoho’s academic and student users, once again, going way beyond an average user’s needs. (the other update today is mass import from Google Docs: nice, special delivery for Dennis, but I still would like to see a list of all my online docs, be it Zoho or Google, open them, edit them, and save to whichever format (and storage) I want to.)

Online applications have arrived, they’ve become feature-rich, powerful, and are the way software will be consumed in the future. They also change the business landscape.

Software margins choked by the cloud? – asks Matt Assay at CNet, pointing out a shift in Microsoft’s tone about cloud computing, recognizing that in the future they will host apps for a majority of their customers, and that their margins will seriously decline:

There’s not a chance in Hades that Microsoft will be able to charge more for its cloud-based offerings–not when its competitors are using the cloud to pummel its desktop and server-based offerings. This is something that Microsoft (and everyone else) is simply going to have to get used to. The go-go days of outrageous software margins are over. Done.

Matt cites Nick Carr who in turn recently discussed

…the different economics of providing software as a Web service and the aggressive pricing strategies of cloud pioneers like Google, Zoho, and Amazon.

This is fellow Enterprise Irregular Larry Dignan’s key take-away from the Bill & Steve show, too:

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged the fact that a lot of computing is happening in the browser and not in applications. He also said that the future of software will have “a much more balanced computational model” and that Microsoft will have to compromise.

Of course it isn’t just Office. The obvious business application is CRM, where Salesforce.com pioneered the concept and delivered the first On-demand product. But now a funny thing is happening: the pioneer is increasingly being replaced by more inexpensive competitors, including my Client, Zoho. Yes, SaaS disrupts the traditional software market, but there’s another equally important trend happening: the commoditization of software.

Commoditization is beneficial to customers, but a death-spiral to (most) vendors. Except for the few that drive commoditization. Zoho makes no secret of doing exactly that.

Zemanta Pixie
post

Google Gears goes Mobile – Zoho First to Take Advantage

Mobility is supposed to be about 24/7 connectivity, isn’t it?  I’m writing this on a a 7.2Mbps HSDPA mobile connection while visiting my parents in Hungary.   HSDPA is like 3G on steroids, and we’re not even close to universal 3G coverage in the US.  What’s more, forget data, I’d be happy with just universal voice coverage right here in the heart of Technology.  I get measly coverage (half a bar only right next to the window) in my house, but what’s a real shame, try talking on a T-mobile phone on the long walkway from Parking to the International Terminal at SFO: zero, nada, no signal at all.

Until that’s fixed, mobility isn’t about 24/7 connectivity, it’s about 24/7 access, online or offline.  Which is why it’s great to see Google Gears Mobile released today, initially for Internet Explorer Mobile on Windows Mobile 5 and 6.  Now you don’t lose vital information when your phone goes offline. 

The first two apps taking advantage of Gears Mobile are Buxfer a finance tracking application and Zoho Writer.

 

The current Zoho Mobile Offline version (wow, that’s a mouthfulsmile_tongue) is view only – if you recall, it did not take long for Zoho to add edit capabilities to the Gears-based offline version on the desktop, so we can likely expect the same here, too.

This video presents Zoho Writer Offline in use.   As a reminder, Zoho also works on the iPhone, at at izoho.com – offline support will come just as soon as Google Gears will support it.

 

Related posts: Google Mobile Blog, TechCrunchTechMoz, VentureBeat, Mashable, The Buxfer Post, Zoho Blogs.

post

Zoho Expands Group Collaboration

Today’s Zoho Writer update is not what it looks like. Yes, I get the story about:

  • DocX Support
  • Thesaurus (in 10 languages)
  • Enhanced Endnotes/Footnotes
  • Enhanced Headers/Footers

..etc, but that’s not what I find exciting. DocX support? Personally, I don’t care, MS Office 2003 was the last version I bought, people much smarter than me call it a completely insane format … but hey, the Borg is the market leader, so why not support it… Layout improvements? I’m already in a paperless world, barely ever print, so I don’t really care about these features. But Microsoft Office was created at a time when the purpose of document creation was to eventually print it, and in our legacy world the challenger is measured against the standards of the incumbent, so, yes, I can accept these are important features for Writer. Besides, the academic / student community has been dying for endnotes / footnotes, so now they can have it. smile_shades

But the hidden bomb here isn’t just a Writer improvement: it’s a feature that shows Zoho’s hands regarding collaboration in the entire Zoho Business Suite. Yes, I am talking about Group Sharing. After all, one of the key drivers behind moving to web-based Office applications is to enable easier collaboration.

Most of the collaborative apps, including Zoho or mighty Google typically allow either public sharing, or inviting users individually, but until now there has been no way to share your documents with a predefined set of users, i.e. members of a group. A year and a half ago I praised Google Groups for stepping out of being just a group email mechanism, becoming a mini community/collaborative platform – but the definition of a “group”, i.e.it’s members does not exist outside the Groups application, I can’t share Google Docs or Spreadsheets with my Group. (And make no mistake it’s been the same with Zoho until now.)

With today’s update you can now create a Group in the ‘My Account‘ section of Zoho, and that Group is recognizable in any other Zoho Application, including Writer, Sheet or even Zoho Mail. Eventually there will be multiple privacy / sharing levels within the Zoho Universe:

  • private
  • shared with individual email id’s
  • shared with Groups (defined once, recognized in all apps)
  • shared by Domain (i.e. share info within your business)

The last one will be a feature of Zoho Business, currently in private Beta, but the other two are available. Thesaurus in 10 languages, format and layout improvements are all nice, but the real news of the day is the improved cross-application collaboration.

Related posts: TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, Wired, Digital Inspiration, Zoho Blogs.

post

EchoSign 3.0 Released – the Complexity Dilemma

Echosign, the leading Web-based document e-signature / distribution / management provider has just released version 3.0, with major updates.

The UI got significantly revamped, there are new subscription levels to manage up to thousands of documents, new forms were introduced, but the most important change per CEO Jason Lemkin is the introduction of complex workflows – a definite need for large corporations:

Hundreds of new workflow options have been added to EchoSign. The first group has been automatically added to the Account tab for Team and Enterprise customers. Want to sign ‘packs’ of documents? No problem. Routed signed copies of every contract in your company to a global e-mail address? Just tell us where. Collect title, company name? Whatever you want. Select who can — and cannot — sign in your company? Done, with one click.

And for the most complex workflows, EchoSign now offers a novel “Signature Workflow Language” where Enterprise customers can craft their own custom document worfklows. Want (A) your customer to fax sign your contract, (B) auto cc your sales rep, (C) autoroute to legal for electronic counter-signing, (D) but only by certain authorized signers, and then (E) have signed copies automatically sent back to the (F) customer, (G) legal, (H) sales ops, (I) accounting and (J) the sales rep? Now, no problem. Contact your account manager for access here and configuring workflow options beyond those you can set yourself on the Account tab.”

Let’s stop for a minute here: complexity is typically the last thing a software CEO would point out in his announcement, but Jason handles it with class and humor, for good reason. The illustration he picked (how did he find this gem?) shows a decidedly simple “process” made awfully complex by introducing far too many steps and “technology” prone to failure. EchoSign, on the other hand has earned a reputation of simplifying processes originally made complex by people, rules and lack of technology. I trust Jason and team – they will likely manage to reduce complexity, even while embracing it.

By the way, EchoSign is not only for large corporations, it’s for businesses of any size. I’m a one-person shop, and used it a few times. Even now as I type this post in Zoho Writer, I could just click on DigiSign (see highlight below) and have it routed to Jason to sign off. Not that I need to, after all, that would be …complexity. smile_eyeroll

post

Now You Can Really Zoho Offline

As much as I am a certified web-app fan, I’m not naive enough to believe I’ll always have 100% broadband availability. Crazy shooters, limited conference availability, or just traveling to less covered areas (and I don’t mean here) – there will be times when we need our documents offline.

That’s why I’m happy to see Zoho Writer get offline editing capabilities today. The offline implementation is based on Google Gears, which, ironically, has yet to show up in Google’s own Apps. This video tutorial walks you through the new features – note, the steps to install Google Gears are obviously required only once. After that, you just click “Go Offline”, and can access your documents at writer.zoho.com/offline. When you’re connected again, click “Go Online” and Zoho will sync your changes back to the original document.

The features are more than covered by all the “big names”, including TechCrunch, Read/WriteWeb, GigaOM, /Message, Digital Inspiration, CenterNetworks, Webware.com and Wired – to name just a few. I’ll focus on what’s still missing, and a few comments.

Yes, this is not a perfect solution – yet. Going offline has to be a planned activity since you actively need to click the option while still online; this is the way Google Gears works for now. But life produces unexpected situations, like the other day when I had to hop on a train, and was staring at an empty Google Reader as I had forgotten to click “Offline” at home (Google Reader’s offline capability is also based on Gears). But Zoho never stops enhancing their products, and they plan to tackle auto detecting online/offline status and periodically sync the contents of online and offline documents.

Some reviewers compare Zoho’s approach to full integration by Live Documents. I find it rather funny: since when can we compare a PR release to existing products? GigaOM’s headline is also quite surprising: Zoho Seeks to Replace, Not Embrace, Microsoft Office. Again, this in comparison to yet-to-be-launched Live Documents‘ “embrace and extend” strategy. What this comparison forgets to mention is that Zoho has their own MS Office plugins, so, using their analogy, Zoho’s strategy includes “embrace, extend or replace”. The choice is up to the users, as it should be.

Last but not least, the little birds are singing that the next Zoho announcement will prove that web-based apps can be on par with their desktop counterparts: care to guess which application I am talking about? smile_wink

post

Google & Zoho: Friend or Foe?

When Zoho introduced the offline version of their word processor, Zoho Writer, no commentators (including yours truly) missed the chance to point out the irony that the solution is based on Google Gears, while Google’s own competing Docs do not have this capability yet.

Zoho, which competes head-on with Google Docs & Spreadsheets, managed to launch offline functionality on their product before Google did. The fact that they are using Google software to do this makes the story somewhat ironic. (TechCrunch)

it’s very ironic that Zoho Writer has incorporated off-line features before its competitor, Google Docs, did. And by using Google Gears software developed by Google itself! (Proud Geek)

Donna Bogatin @ Insider Chatter went further:

What IS up with the would be Microsoft Office killer, Google Apps? Chief Googler Eric Schmidt proclaims “Search, Ads and Apps” is the new Google worldwide domination motto, but he is helping competitors Sun StarOffice AND Zoho attempt to steal Microsoft’s thunder, while Google Office remains Microsoft Office killer MIA.

First, Google subsidizes free downloads of Sun’s supposed Microsoft Office replacement via its Google Pack.

Now, Google Gears powers direct Google Apps competitor Zoho in an offline initiative, while Google Apps itself remains firmly in the cloud!

Google is either planning something VERY big for Google Apps, or it is retrenching.

While I have no idea what the plans for Google Apps are – after the StarOffice announcement there was speculation whether the future is syncing to StarOffice or Gears-based offline – they are definitely not retrenching. This is not a matter of “who gets there first”. In fact it’s not even cut-throat competition. Of all the reports, I believe Techdirt got it right:

As we noted when Gears was first announced, Google was clearly interested in advancing the whole area of web-based software, not just in pushing its own apps. Just as Microsoft seems hesitant to give even the slightest endorsement of this model, Google recognizes that it will benefit, regardless of which offerings users choose in the short term.

Exactly. Any time you, me, any user makes a choice between Google Docs or Zoho Writer, Google Spreadsheet or Zoho Sheet, it’s clearly a competitive situation. But in other ways, Google’s and Zoho’s interests are well aligned. I’ve said a number of times before, it’s not about slicing the pie yet, it’s about making sure the pie will be huge . Both Google and Zoho have vested interest in promoting the paradigm shift from PC-based to Web-based computing. Competitors can be friends – it’s not unheard of, just think of arch-rivals Oracle and SAP: cut-throat competitors in the enterprise application market – yet as a database vendor, Oracle is an important SAP partner.

But let’s be clear, I’m not trying to give the impression the Gears-based Zoho development was the result of some grand Google-Zoho master plan. Nothing would be further from the truth. Google Gears is an Open Source project (check out Donna Bogatin’s post for details) , a significant one, and “Mother Google” is not trying to control who uses it for what. Let’s go to the source though: Dion Almaer of the Google Gears team said:

Of course, Google could have held Gears back and released it at the same time as a bunch of offline Google applications, but that isn’t the point. Gears is about making the Web a better place through offline, and we want the Web to be able to benefit.

That is why I am excited to see (Zoho) Writer join the list of developers that use Gears.

In fact Dion called to congratulate the Zoho team, and visited their Pleasanton office to interview Sridhar Vembu, CEO, and Raju Vegesna, Evangelist. Here’s the video:

And if that was not enough media, Raju is going live on the Computer America radio show at 7pm PST tonight. (I hope he won’t sing smile_wink)

(Disclaimer: I’m an Advisor to Zoho, however, the article above is a reflection of my own thinking, not a statement from Zoho.)


Further reading: Zoho Blogs, Insider Chatter

post

Now You Can Zoho Offline

As much as I moved online I’m not naive enough to believe I’ll always have 100% broadband availability. Crazy shooters, limited conference availability, or just traveling to less covered areas (and I don’t mean here) – there will be times when we need our documents offline.

Seamless online/offline access has just become easier today, with Zoho introducing offline support for your Writer documents. Ironically, this has been implemented using Google Gears, not yet offered in Google Docs & Spreadsheets. (In all fairness, we don’t really know if a Gears-based offline mode in in the plans for Google docs, there was some speculation that StarOffice becomes an alternative).

In Zoho Writer you just click “Go Offline”, and if you don’t have it yet, first this will trigger the Google Gears download/install process, than, and any time after this it will simply download your Zoho documents to your local PC. Your documents are available at http://writer.zoho.com/offline. See more details on this video:

For now, offline access is read-only, but Zoho is working on providing active editing capabilities in the next few weeks. It’s worth mentioning that Zoho has long offered an alternative, the Zoho MS Office plugin (previous coverage here) .

Commenting is another important feature added in today’s update. Now that there are three recognized leaders – Google, Zoho, ThinkFree – on the online office market, niche players (e.g. Coventi) pop up here and there focusing on a particular area not supported by the “Big Three”. The problem with being a feature-based niche player is that you can never know when the “majors” add your feature-set. Zoho has just done it.

You can easily add a comment, and of course all users the document is shared to can do the same, making up a conversation-thread, indicated by a comment icon ( picture-1.png ) in the text. Clicking on it pulls up the actual comments (see below), or you can see all comments inside the document by clicking on the comments icon ( picture-4.png ) on the status bar.

Talk about conversation let’s not forget that Zoho Chat is integrated right into Writer, so you can have real-time conversation with your collaborators or leave comments. As usual, Zoho will continue enhancing the comments functionality.

(Disclosure: I’m an Advisor to Zoho)

For additional coverage, read: TechCrunch, Read/WriteWeb, Mashable, Proud Geek, Open Source Guy, Techchee, Collaborative Thinking, TechBizMedia, Insider Chatter, Download Squad, jkOnTheRun, Office Evolution, CNET News.com, mathewingram.com/work, Ajaxian, CyberNet Technology News, Profy.Com, The Universal Desktop, PC World, Techdirt.

post

Texty: Not All Good Names Are Taken, After All

The best thing about Texty may be its name. TechCrunch calls it Dead Simple Content Creation And Editing. You just start typing in a simplified editing window on their site, add images if you want to, do some formatting, click a button and pick up an embed code to include in your site.

The result: WYSINWYG: What You See Is NOT What You Get. Your page is a container, it has a little javascript code, but the actual text body is on Texty’s site. The text appears to be there, you can read it, but it does not show up on Google Reader, and certainly does not get indexed by Google or any other search engines: you lose findability.

Of course there may very well be situations when the ability to send / publish a piece in multiple copies, while you retain the ability to centrally update it is beneficial. In fact a Zoho Writer user “discovered” this months ago. Some of Owen Kelly’s scenarios:

  • Centrally update his resume, while it’s posted in multiple places
  • Submitting academic paper for a conference – organizers want to publish it early, while it still goes through iterations

(Read the full essay here: Zoho for distributed publication.)

The score for Texty: good for some (distributed publishing), dangerous for others ( no search, text may disappear if the service goes belly up). And, as we’ve just seen, it’s nothing new.

But I have to give it to them (whoever they are) they got just the right name: it’s catchy, simple, and actually tells what they do. I can’t believe such a name was still available! I guess *not* All Good Product Names Are Taken, after all. smile_shades

post

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…