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Zoho’s Mod Appeal

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: May 17 2013

If you are a small or medium business and you haven’t heard of Zoho yet, you should check it out—the company might have an app for you, perhaps even for free. The name alludes to small office, home office, i.e., SOHO, although some products are suited to larger companies.

The Web-based mini apps of the Zoho Office Suite are a great example of the trend of the atomization of user experience. This is in tune with the Long Tail Theory, according to which companies will compete on ever-smaller and more specific product footprints and capabilities to satisfy ever-smaller niches, and all in a plug-and-play manner. Forrester has also noted a “business technology (BT)” trend, describing pervasive use by casual users in lines of business (LoBs) of technology that is increasingly managed outside the direct control of IT departments.

Certainly Zoho is fulfilling a demand for easy-to-use cloud and mobile apps for productivity, collaboration, and communication that aren’t bogged down by the need to customize and manage this functionality within an enterprise-wide system.

Zoho’s Background

Headquartered in California and with global offices, the privately held company (which has reportedly never taken venture capital or bank loans) started as a network framework provider for telecom equipment vendors in 1996 (its network management suite WebNMS has 25,000 Tier 1 carrier deployments). Formerly known as AdventNet, Zoho Corporation diversified in 2003 into information technology (IT) management software with ManageEngine.

In 2005, it launched Zoho Office Suite with a Web-based word processor, and later expanded to offer other applications, including spreadsheets, a calendar, contacts list, and other business-oriented programs. Zoho Office Suite is a Web-based online apps suite containing word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, note-taking, wikis, customer relationship management (CRM), project management, invoicing, and many other applications developed. Additional products for online productivity, collaboration, and business applications were introduced later.

More than seven million users rely on Zoho for their business, productivity, and collaboration needs and actively connect via Zoho’s forums, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. 

Zoho’s Apps Portfolio

Currently, Zoho offers several online office applications, such as Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet, Zoho Show, and Zoho Mail (comparable to Microsoft Office and Google Apps), along with CRM, Projects, Invoice, Chat, and Meeting. These applications are offered directly via the Zoho.com site or through hundreds of partners in the Zoho Alliance Partner Program. All apps, with the sole exception of Zoho Books (accounting), have their free editions, with paid editions offering more functionality or allowing more users. For example, customers can use Zoho Meeting for free one-on-one Web meetings, but must pay a monthly fee for a set number of users. Zoho Meeting integrates with all other Zoho services and offers features such as variable viewer options, remote assistance, and desktop shortcuts.

Zoho’s suite of mini apps leverages Java and a slew of open source technologies such as MySQL and Apache Cassandra. The apps work seamlessly together based on Zoho’s own integration framework (similar to Dell Boomi, Informatica, or IBM Cast Iron); e.g., Zoho Mail works within Zoho CRM, but the CRM product can also work with Microsoft Outlook and can be integrated to Intuit QuickBooks rather than to Zoho Books. Zoho also boasts good integration with Google Apps, although the two companies can be (and often are) direct competitors in productivity apps.

Zoho CRM is one of the company's most popular apps and is also a top app at Google Apps Marketplace. Zoho CRM continues to win over small to medium businesses (SMBs) with its good-enough functionality for a reasonable price, and keeps chipping away at salesforce.com (and other established CRM vendors’) customers in the lower end.

Zoho Creator is a cloud platform for companies to develop their own private custom apps. According to Zoho, its customers have thus far created about half a million of apps.

Zoho Projects 4.0: Going Mobile

Most recently, Zoho announced major upgrades to the online and mobile editions of Zoho Projects, its online project management and team collaboration solution. This update upgrades the user interface (UI), to improve the speed and simplicity of working with Zoho Projects on mobile devices as well as online. Users of the Web version will find that Zoho Projects’ new design makes it easy for effective collaboration, especially among remote workers.

Similarly, the redesigned Zoho Projects for iPhone and new Zoho Projects for Android have also been optimized for collaboration. Zoho Projects now features Project Feeds, a Facebook-style notification system, which fosters visual communication and collaboration. Instead of static e-mail messages, Project Feeds uses a scrolling wall to display status updates, task assignments, and other communications in real time, so designated team members can view and comment on them. Project Feeds “listens” to feeds relevant to the project—hot forum topics, critical requests, docs pending approval—and reports back to users. Users can also share images via Project Feeds to tell a more detailed story. Project Feeds also includes a “follow” feature that lets users track an individual team member’s progress and assigned tasks, for better workload and timeline management. Pricing options for all of the aforementioned products are detailed on Zoho’s Web site.

In Conclusion

Some people opine about these kind of apps being the death of integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites, to which I say “Not so fast!” These apps are good for smaller groups, smaller companies, or departments within large enterprises, although they may not be suited to running the entire business of larger companies. Zoho does have some offerings for larger enterprises, but these are, again, departmental “edge” solutions.

Another proponent of open source technology, xTuple, is approaching the market from the other end—the vendor already has a full ERP system. It intends to spin out micro-modules that let users start with just one piece, then build up to the fully integrated ERP that already exists. Many ERP providers already have their budding app stores, e.g., SYSPRO and QAD to name a couple.

The market may ultimately favor one approach over the other, but this will depend on many factors pertaining to the customer company’s IT culture, for example, whether the company is centralized or decentralized, or conservative or an early adopter, etc. Just as proprietary software and open source software coexist at companies, one should imagine the coexistence and success of both approaches for some time to come.

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