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Zoho Cloud Products

Zoho is a very interesting company that I’ve been following for a while – interesting on many different levels. If you haven’t looked at what they offer, you really should.

Some basic business facts

  1. The company is staffed almost entirely in India, with a very small presence in Pleasanton, CA.
  2. The founder of the company, Sridhar Vembu, had a theory that he could hire around the common practices in India, and go directly to high schools for his talent. Apparently, he was right.
  3. Zoho employs hundreds of staff members in India, and yet they still have a relatively small presence in the US.

So what do the Zoho apps do?

Wow. The age of what we once called productivity software has come and gone. I worked on some of the first software packages before many startup entrepreneurs were born! WordStar, SuperCalc, MultiMate, dBASE – all gone now, but products that were once #1 or #2 in their class when there was real competition (i.e. before Windows and the Microsoft juggernaut).
Then along came Zoho to upset this entire marketplace. They make online productivity software – word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, database, and more – at last count, 18 different applications. I’ve been using Zoho CRM for a few months, and I love it (I came to it from SugarCRM, and then vTiger).
OK, it’s one thing to put together all this great stuff, but surely it can’t compete with Microsoft Office products. And Google has been trying to steal this marketplace from Microsoft. Anybody remember “thin computers”? Remember how hard Larry Ellison (Oracle) tried to push this concept?
How about Netscape, one of only two products I’ve ever seen that were overnight successes. The Netscape crew announced a desktop from which you could run applications – in my opinion, this was the proximate cause of their death, because Microsoft immediately recognized this as the threat it was to Office and Windows, and promptly stomped Netscape. I was there, I worked with Netscape, and I heard Mike Homer announce this to Netscape’s partners (1996?).
So everyone but Google has failed in this quest, and frankly, Google’s effort is on life support.
So why do I get so excited about Zoho? Because these applications are really good. I’ve used a few of them, and while I wouldn’t trade Office for them (yet), I do think about making the change. I also tried Google’s apps, early on, but didn’t like them. In fairness to Zoho, I am a very intense Office user – I’m one of those people who use more than a few of its features. As I type this blog entry in Zoho Writer, I miss the auto-correct in Word. I miss the auto numbering (or bulleting) where I can type “1.” and some text, and it becomes a numbered listing. And I’d much, much prefer to type “i like this” than “I like this.” 
There’s stuff missing, to be sure, but Zoho doesn’t move at the glacial pace Microsoft does. They’ve put up 18 applications in just a few years. Microsoft “upgrades” office every 3-4 years so they can keep revenue flowing. And it remains to be seen how Zoho handles this, but it’s clear to me that Microsoft management has gotten so out of touch with their customers that for every good thing they do (many), they do 2 bad things in each release. Oh, and some bugs I’ve been fighting with for 10 years (literally) are still there. Let’s hope that Zoho will be more responsive.

Other benefits

I don’t believe that cloud computing per se makes sense. I think that cloud storage makes sense. I’ve always thought that thin clients were dumb, except for very small, relatively powerless devices. We’ve seen this repeated through the years: people tend to buy the most powerful computer they can, given the form factor. Stripped down desktops still have so much power that putting the processing in the cloud is silly. And although I’m just looking at this from the outside, I’m pretty sure that most of these applications do precisely what I said – Zoho Writer is downloaded to the browser where it’s executed, and the “glue” is on the server – tying all applications together, saving data, managing files, permissions, etc.
When your files are on the Internet, you can access them from anywhere. And we would hope that Zoho is doing your backups for you so you’ll never lose data (but you’d be dumb to assume this, or even trust it if you know it to be true). Zoho’s thoughtful implementation can even allow you to collaborate on your docs, so others you invite and/or allow can view or edit all or portions of your documents. This is very important for teams, and although very few people actually use this kind of collaborative power today, everybody will eventually.
Finally, I’d like to give kudos to Zoho. I’m so happy to see somebody providing this kind of software. While I don’t think Microsoft is evil, it’s clear that they are subject to the same temptations as everyone else, and that competition will benefit us all. Back when I competed with Lotus 1-2-3, the pace of spreadsheet advances was incredible (we tried for a major update every nine months!). The good features of SuperCalc inevitably showed up in the next release of 1-2-3, and vice versa. It was good for everyone, and frankly, in this pre-litigious era, we were happy to share, because it was good for the end users.
So thank you, Sridhar and crew. Job well done, and appreciated.


I thought I’d list some of the features I’d need to really consider switching from Word. This is highly subjective, of course:
  1. Auto correct – my typing has degraded over the years, and Word has made this worse, and frankly, I need the help. Auto-correct simple spelling errors, transpositions, etc.
  2. Format painter – that little paint brush in Word – can’t live without it.
  3. Auto numbering and bulleting.
  4. More to come, but I do have a real request – please make a utility to take emails and format them as a proper document (cut, paste, and format). I’ve wasted so much time over the years doing this, since most emails, when cut and pasted, have hard returns at the end of each line (so they don’t word wrap).

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