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The Rev2 Cabinet is a weekly investigative series at Rev2 where we take an in-depth look into some of the leading companies, startups, and services. Along with a podcast interview with our associate editor Zach Sims (embedded below and in the RSS feed), leading executives and CEOs offer insights into their startups and services which we analyze with an in-depth writeup. If you’re interested in being profiled, please contact Zach.

Podcast
Interview with Raju Vegesna, Chief Evangelist at Zoho
[Download MP3] [50:56]

Introduction
What does Zoho do? It’s certainly hard to define. No matter how they do it, they’re going about it differently than the majority of companies we write about today. For one, Zoho’s not even their own company. Instead, they’re a subsidiary of a larger, profitable company called AdventNet, which owns other web companies like ToonDoo. AdventNet, founded in 1996, works in the enterprise IT, networking, and telecom industries. In 2004, the company recognized the need for a transition to online applications and launched Zoho in September of 2005. Even though the company is a subsidiary of a far larger company, they act as though they are a startup. I spoke with Raju Vegesna, Zoho’s evangelist, about the company’s history and its future.

Raju Defined

Blown away by the diversity and depth of Zoho’s product line, I had to ask their evangelist, Raju, how he related Zoho to an audience of luddites. The pitch, he said, depended on the audience. Zoho’s wide range of services – including a word processor, a wiki creator, project management software, and more – appeals to a wide demographic. As such, Raju’s primary job is to “educate the market on web apps and collaboration.” From there, he could explain how Zoho fit into that niche.

Online Applications Defined

What, then, makes web apps better than a typical desktop application? In Raju’s mind, it’s as simple as the difference between a mobile phone and a telephone with a landline. With online applications, you can get access anywhere. That’s not the sole allure, however. Raju also noted that the invention of the mobile phone has brought new innovations, like cameras and the features that have come along with them. Before the invention of the mobile phone, photographs had to be given to friends or sent to them via mail. With cameraphones, users can simply click a button or two and the picture’s off to all of their best friends. Zoho brings similar innovations to the areas they work in. Sure, you can word process in both Zoho Writer and Microsoft Word, but Zoho gives you the ability to track your revisions and collaborate with others. Try doing that in Microsoft Word.

The Online/Offline Relationship

Still, not everyone’s ready to switch to online applications for all of their needs, even if the web apps can meet most of their requirements. It’s difficult to leave something you’ve relied on for years and to switch to something completely new and different. That’s evident in Google’s recent product announcement of Google Apps Team Edition. If a company’s not willing to adopt the new web tools that their employees are using, it’s easy enough for individuals within the company to adapt. Zoho, however, makes it much easier for prospective users to make the transition, whether within a large company or within their own house.

Two innovations, the Microsoft Office plugins and the Desktopize software for Zoho, make the jump from offline to online easier than ever. The Microsoft Office plugin, released by Zoho in November of 2006 to widespread approval, helps to make Zoho a storage space for users’ Microsoft Office documents. With the plugin, users can create documents in Microsoft Word or Excel and save them directly to Zoho, while saving an offline local copy if they wish. Additionally, users can edit documents that were started on Zoho within Microsoft Word. This update makes it effortless for users to finally combine what they’ve known with the revolutions of Web 2.0. When you’re at your home computer, you can use Microsoft Word to work on your documents. If you’re away from home, it’s as easy as signing into Zoho. Desktopize helped to create a single site browser like Mozilla Prism for the Zoho web apps. It minimizes to the system tray and acts as if it were a full office suite.

officezoho.jpg

Opening a Zoho Document in Microsoft Word

Zoho’s also one of the company’s that has used Google Gears to make Zoho work offline in the Firefox browser. They beat Google to the punch, and in my experience, using Zoho offline is rather simple. While not as easy and accessible as the Microsoft Office plugin, it’s certainly another way to access a terrific online word processor when the internet is not available. Zoho has differentiated themselves from the pack by allowing users to edit their documents offline, a crucial distinction from the offerings of other companies which simply allow users to read their documents offline.

Raju called it “backwards compatibility,” noting that Zoho can’t leave its less tech savvy users in the cold. Still, he notes, the focus is on converting them to the online application. Raju described the distribution of Zoho’s efforts as 80% online and 20% offline. For a company that’s only putting 20% into their offline efforts, they’ve done some tremendous things for offline users. Their Microsoft Office plugin, the Desktopize browser, and the functionality with Google Gears make Zoho’s offline offering nearly as formidable as their online one. After all, said Raju, Zoho is “here for the long haul” and cannot afford to alienate any user base.

An Online Office? Not Quite…

Zoho does replace typical Microsoft Office products like Word and Excel. As I mentioned earlier, however, Zoho brings lots of new features to the table. In their traditional products, like Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet, the company adds online collaboration like competitors Google Docs and Buzzword. Version tracking is included as well. Pagination is a new feature that Google Docs doesn’t include, and the easy Zoho Start page is a good way to edit documents with a tabbed interface. Raju conceded that Google Docs offered simplicity, but he claimed that’s not what he was after. Instead, Zoho beats Google’s offerings in both breadth and depth. They offer more, and each of their applications includes more features. Switching to Zoho seems like a no brainer for me, and Zoho says that’s been the typical trend they’ve seen. Users typically find Zoho after experiencing something like Google Docs. Finding more features and more applications, they settle on Zoho.

Zoho Start.jpg

Zoho Start, the homepage for all of Zoho’s apps

A good outline of Zoho’s offerings is available on their homepage, but it’s worth noting the sheer number of products Zoho’s working on. Some of their products, like Zoho Projects and Zoho Planner seem to compete directly with offers from the famed 37Signals, makers of collaboration and personal organization services Backpack and Basecamp. Among Zoho’s other offerings are Zoho Mail (a collaborative mail product), Zoho DB (an online database product), Zoho Meeting (Desktop Sharing & Web Conferencing), Zoho Chat, Zoho Notebook, and Zoho Wiki.

Ease of Use

Much has been said across the web about the Zoho suite, and we’re not the first to praise the service for its usability. I’ve used lots of competing services, like Buzzword and Google Docs. To me, Zoho is the more businesslike environment for word processors on the internet, and that’s advantageous. It’ll be easier for those who are looking for features, not good looks, to adapt. I absolutely loved the writing atmosphere in Buzzword when I tried it out, and Zoho Writer is far more sterile. Still, it provides more tools than Buzzword and, for those looking for more than a simple word process, is a much better option. As far as I’ve seen, Zoho is the only word processor that truly encompasses most of Microsoft’s features and should make it easy enough for typical users of MS Word to adapt to an online word processor.

Zoho Writer.jpg

Zoho Writer’s Interface

“Google is the best thing that happened to Zoho.” Wait, what?

I asked Raju about the fierce competition the company’s facing. Online offices are a dime a dozen nowadays, and competition’s heating up. Adobe just bought the Buzzword word processor (as part of a deal for Virtual Ubiquity), and other large companies like Google continue to add more features and applications. Why is it, then, that Raju sees Google, one of its biggest competitors, as “the best thing that ever happened to Zoho.” Before their entrance into the market, contended Raju, the online office market was simply a bunch of small players. As soon as Google entered the market, it was a recognition of the importance of the online office. As Raju told me, users may find Google Docs first, but when they search for a more diverse and full office experience, they will settle on Zoho.

Getting Down to Business

Zoho’s key demographic is small and medium businesses. The focus on this group is so great that Raju claims that Zoho’s ultimate goal is to “be the IT department for small and medium business.” Zoho’s products are designed for small and medium businesses, whereas Google’s are designed to be deployed by much larger entities. The different routes taken by the two companies could enable Zoho to triumph in their own demographic. Even in a head-to-head with Google, Zoho may have the upper hand. Raju’s estimates claim that Zoho has 20-30% more features than Google and 40-50% more applications than the search giant.

Zoho Business.jpg

Zoho Business’ Beta Homepage

In response to the greater demand for a business-centric offering, Zoho has launched a for-pay program called Zoho Business. The core Zoho products remain free for users to use on a personal level. The new Business service, meanwhile, makes it easier to manage domains, users, and more, while deploying Zoho’s terrific set of tools.

Zoho’s Education

Zoho’s focus on business doesn’t mean there isn’t attention placed anywhere else. After all, Raju said that anywhere from 30-40% of Zoho’s users are students. Later this year, Zoho plans to launch a Zoho Education service. Zoho seems to have realized many of the tech problems that 21st century students face, and has a good grip on how to attack them. Only a few of the apps will make their way into Zoho Education, but new tools are supposed to accompany them. For one, students will be able to submit their homework to teachers. Zoho Education may be a few months off, but when it arrives I’m sure it’ll have a large impact on the sorely lacking education technology industry.

What’s Next?

Zoho’s done an incredible amount in its short history. Much of this is due to effective business practices. While the company isn’t profitable yet, it has the support of a far larger corporation, AdventNet, which gives it the ability to pursue whichever direction it chooses without interference. Zoho, which has many engineers in India, has a separate team that works on each application. Raju claims that the focus is for each individual team to “be the best in their category.” It’s been difficult for us to keep up with Zoho because of the incredible number of updates the company puts out. The Zoho Blogs are a great place to keep track of what the company’s thinking, along with the frequent updates.

zohoiPhone.jpg

Zoho’s iPhone Interface

Zoho is miles away from the competition. They’ve created a mobile interface for Zoho Creator, and iPhone users can use a nifty interface to read their Zoho docs on-the-go. There’s no interaction available for those documents yet, but Zoho plans to enable users to write from their iPhones in the near future. Zoho’s Facebook application may take the fun out of Facebook, but it’s there as a productivity option for those who want an office within Facebook. I think it’s a valuable tool that actually adds some productivity value to Facebook.

Raju said Zoho loves feedback. I’d give them some suggestions, but I find that there’s so little not to like, and so much to like that it’s hard to come up with anything. In concluding our phone call, Raju told our users to “give Zoho a try.” If you do, I know you won’t be disappointed.

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