Zoho for SOHO

We’re writing this introduction to the Zoho suite of online, browser-based office productivity tools using, appropriately enough, Zoho Writer, the word processor module. Hey, it works; and quite well, actually. Zoho Writer even boasts some nifty features you don’t find in more advanced word processors.

If you detect a note of surprise here, it’s because ZW is offered free of charge by creator AdventNet Inc., a California-based custom software house that does its development work in India. Not only is the application free, you also get unlimited free document storage on the Zoho servers, at least for now while the product remains in beta. After that, AdventNet says it will provide only 1GB of storage per customer.

Zoho Writer
Zoho Writer gives you plenty of word processing features. It may not be Word, but then again, it won’t cost you a penny. (Click for larger image).

The suite includes 12 modules, most “100 percent free,” a few not. Among the other 100-percent free modules: spreadsheet, presentation creator, organizer and database manager. Whether they will always be free is not clear. One wonders how the company expects to make money from Zoho.

It does charge for some modules. The project management tool is free for one project, with prices for additional projects starting at $5. And Zoho CRM, a basic customer relationship management program, is free for up to three people, $12 per month per additional person.

Good and Free
To get a flavor for the Zoho suite, we took a closer look at Zoho Writer. It’s pretty impressive for free software.

All you need to use it is a Java-enabled browser. Zoho Writer works with Explorer 5.5+, Mozilla 1.4+, Firefox 1.5+ and Netscape 7.0+. You also need to set up a Zoho account, but the sign-up process asks only for an e-mail address, user name and password. Zoho sends a message to your e-mail box with a Web link that you have to click to activate the account.

On a 3.6GHz desktop PC, with a cable Internet connection that was running at 200 kilobits per second (Kbps) according to the Internet Connection Speedometer at the McAfee site, response times from ZW were pretty good. We noticed that when backspacing over text, it was slightly slower than an application such as Microsoft Word running on your computer. But otherwise we never felt held up waiting for the application to complete a task and then transmit data over the Internet.

Zoho Writer is decidedly not Word. It lacks many of Word’s advanced and even not-so-advanced features. But the weird thing is, we haven’t come across many so far that we absolutely can’t live without – and we make our living using a word processor. We’re guessing most SOHO workers could get along quite nicely with the functionality ZW offers.

You can use ZW to create new documents or import and edit documents created in a number of other formats – Word, HTML, Open Office, rtf, jpg, gif, png and text files. Documents are stored on Zoho servers and regularly backed up, AdventNet said. You can easily recover accidentally delete files.

The only security in place at this point to protect your data is username and password, but the company is promising encryption when the product moves out of beta.

You can also use the Export command to save documents to your hard drive in Word and other formats. The Word converter wasn’t perfect. It added extra carriage returns between paragraphs in the exported version of this document, for example. But we were impressed that it retained the Web links we’d embedded using Zoho Writer.

Simple and Intuitive
The user interface is simple and fairly intuitive, but that’s not hard to achieve with such a stripped-down feature set. Current documents appear as tabs across the top of the main working area. A panel to the left shows folders for My Docs, Templates, Shared Docs, Public Docs and Trash, in which files can be organized by name or date created or modified.

Zoho also lets you use tags to organize files. You can add multiple tags to a document – describing the subject, document type or anything else – and then, with a click of a button, create a folder from a tag. All files to which you add that tag in future will appear in the folder, and files can appear in multiple tag folders.

All the main controls are visible on the screen. Functions such as Save, Save As, Share, Publish (more about the last two in a minute) and E-mail appear in a horizontal text menu at the top of the working area. Below the top-line menu is a customizable double-decker toolbar with graphical controls, including pull-down lists for font and font size. You can use the Options command (in another horizontal text menu at the very top right of the page) to select which groups of icon buttons you want to be visible.

Zoho Writer even has context menus that pop up when you right click, although the selection of items included in the menus doesn’t always seem the best. Right-clicking in body copy, for example, pops up a menu that includes Copy and Paste – that makes sense – but also Select All and Justify commands, which would not be our first choices.

Covered Basics
The essentials for word processing are all here. ZW lets you format text – choose font, size and color, make it bold, italic, underlined, struck through, superscript or subscript. We miss Word’s Paste Unformatted feature that lets you paste text from the clipboard using the same formatting as the surrounding text. And we miss its Format Painter that lets you click in text you’ve already formatted and then drag the cursor over other text to automatically change its formatting to match that of the text you initially clicked.

Zoho Writer lets you justify text left, center o right and fully justify it. You can automatically create numbered or bulleted lists, much the way you do in Word – selecting paragraphs or lines and clicking the appropriate icon button in the main tool bar. And you can indent a range of lines of text by selecting them and clicking the indent or un-indent button.

ZW even has a rudimentary table function. Well, very rudimentary. Some features, such as a Properties dialog, appear not to have been implemented yet. The spell-checker simply finds and underlines words it thinks are misspelled and leaves it to you to correct them by typing over. The Find & Replace function is also pretty basic: Find what, Replace with, Find next, Replace next, Replace All and Match case.

Better Than Word
The Zoho program has some interesting features Word lacks, however, such as easy versioning. Each time you save a document, Zoho preserves the previously saved version. To view an earlier version or revert to it, simply click the History link and select it from a pull-down list. Each entry tells you when the version was created and by whom. To make the selected version the current one, click Revert.

You can also compare two versions, by selecting them from pull-down lists and clicking the Show Diff button. Deleted, added or changed material is highlighted in different colors.

Zoho Creator
Zoho Creator lets you create forms and applications from scratch. (Click for larger image).

ZW makes collaborating easy in other ways too. Clicking the Share button lets you input the e-mail addresses of colleague or friends with whom you want to share the file, and indicate what privileges you’re giving them: read-only or read-write. If the collaborator also uses Zoho, he or she will not only receive a notification e-mail, but the file will also automatically appear in the Shared Docs folder in his or her Zoho Writer account. Zoho will keep track of any changes made and highlight them in the file the next time the file is opened.

If you publish a file – by clicking the top-line Publish link and selecting Make Public – it becomes available to anyone on the Internet who has your Zoho address. You also have the option here to automatically add a link to this file at an existing Web site. The Publish utility has another option that lets you publish to an existing blog at the Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal or TypePad blog services.

Zoho Writer is impressive. Not perfect, but impressive. There are of course many features missing entirely, and we’re sure we’d come to miss many more of them if we used ZW all the time.

Inevitable Downsides
In a few instances, when we performed Zoho functions outside Writer and then came back to the file we were working on, the very last bit of text we’d input before leaving was missing. The cursor tends to jump around in the document when you perform some functions so that you lose your place. And if you click on another file tab in ZW and then come back to the file you were working on, the cursor will always go to the top of the page rather than where you left off editing.

Some of the other modules are less impressive. Zoho Planner, the personal organizer, for example, doesn’t even offer a calendar view (except when you’re setting up an appointment). And the Zoho servers don’t refresh pages often enough to ensure that you get reminders of appointments on time.

On the other hand, Zoho Creator, the database management tool, looks like another winner. It could be useful for creating simple online database applications. Creator provides form templates and ready-made sample applications, but also lets you create forms and fairly sophisticated applications from scratch, including writing custom scripts using Deluge, a language developed by AdventNet.

But using software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications like Zoho comes with some risks. What happens if you can’t access the Zoho servers? Now you can’t access your documents – unless you backed them up by exporting them to your hard drive – and you can’t use Zoho Writer or Creator or any of the other modules. They don’t exist as programs on your computer.

This is not just a problem with Zoho, of course. You have to trust that a SaaS provider won’t go out of business and that its servers will always be available. And you have to be pretty sure you’ll always have access to the Internet when you need to create documents or use the database application you created.

Bottom Line
For micro-businesses and any small business that has very simple application needs and not much money to spend on expensive products such as Microsoft Office, Zoho is worth a look. But until the products move out of beta and it becomes clear the company is making a success of this business model, whatever exactly it is, don’t rely on it 100 percent. You should certainly back up all data created with Zoho applications to your own hard drive.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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