They said it would never happen, but more and more companies are ditching locally run office productivity tools in favour of cloud-based services or, at least, giving them a go. A number of products are available, with Google the market leader thanks to its much vaunted Google Docs and Google Apps products. Microsoft too, reluctantly joined the party recently with Office Web Apps, but one of the first to market was Zoho which, since its inception in 2005, has grown to support over 3 million users with a portfolio of hosted Web applications including Zoho Business, reviewed here.

What is it and who is it for?

As the name implies, Zoho Business is a suite of office productivity tools, designed to meet the needs of the small to medium-sized businesses. As such it can be viewed as an alternative to Microsoft Office and similar desktop productivity suites. Unlike Office, however, the Zoho product is a hosted, cloud-based, solution, accessed via a browser.

Of most interest to companies looking to avoid the start-up, management and support costs of locally run applications, the software involved is all run and maintained on remote servers. As a result very little management is needed at the customer end, with updates applied as and when necessary and, typically, no major changes needed for users to take advantage of what those updates provide.

Zoho Business is of particular interest to organisations with a distributed user base, where the ability for users to access their workspace, and do the business no matter where they happen to be, is another key benefit. Likewise, the ability to run Zoho Business apps in a browser on different platforms and even on mobile devices, with minimal extra setup or management, is seen as a real bonus.

Pricing & setup

Small organisations with up to three users can sign up for and use Zoho Business free of charge. Add a fourth user or more, however, and it’ll cost $50 (per user per year), the same as for main rival Google Apps Premier Edition. Phone and e-mail support are included with the chargeable version along with additional customisation and branding options, such as displaying your own logo rather than the Zoho image.

Comprising a number of applications also available separately, the key components are Zoho Writer, a Word-like word processing application; Zoho Sheet for spreadsheets and Zoho Show for presentations. Hosted e-mail and instant messenger services are also included, along with a number of workgroup collaboration tools, including calendar, contacts and tasks applications. Users also get their own workspaces, with document sharing and real-time collaborative editing other integral features of the Zoho offering.

Setup required is minimal and, as with rival Google Apps, customers can configure Zoho Business to use their own domain, enabling e-mail to be sent and received using “@mydomain” addresses, just as if using an in-house mail server. Documents can also be securely shared within the confines of the organisation, Zoho effectively delivering a complete business network in a browser.

Documents can be stored locally or online using Zoho apps, with storage another part of the deal, starting with a 1GB e-mail inbox per free user, rising to a generous 25GB per user with paid-for accounts. Also included in the price is online storage for documents and files, limited initially to just 1GB across the organisation, but with additional space available starting at $50 (per year) for an extra 10GB.

A simple Web-based dashboard is used to administer the service, enabling domain-wide settings to be configured, user access rights controlled, activity reports generated and so on. Plus it’s possible to add other Zoho products, such as Zoho CRM and invoicing for example, and manage them all through the same interface.

As a hosted service, no special hardware or software is needed at the user end. All that’s required is a browser, with no particular allegiance either when it comes to vendor?Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, they’re all the same as far as Zoho is concerned. Neither do you need any special plug-ins, just sign-up online and start using the service almost immediately. The only delay will be in validating domain ownership and changing DNS settings to have mail delivered to the Zoho servers. Other than that new customers can be up and running in minutes.

Does it do it well?

When it comes to compatibility, Zoho tries really hard to be all things to all men with support for an extensive range of document formats, including those associated with both older Office implementations and the latest 2007/2010 releases. Documents created using Open Office can, similarly be imported/exported, plus it’s possible to publish direct to the Web and create PDF files from most of the Zoho apps.

A common interface is employed across the apps. It’s not quite up to Office 2010 standards with no ribbon interface, for example. However, we found it workmanlike, fairly responsive and easy enough to get to grips with.

The Writer app, we found the most accomplished with most of the layout and formatting tools you’d expect in a modern word processor, including the ability to insert tables and illustrations. Spell checker, thesaurus and word count tools are also built-in plus the ability to perform simple mail merges.

Compared to Excel the Zoho Sheet app is low on features but, as with Writer we found it usable with a good set of basic formatting and calculation tools plus the ability to create simple graphs and pivot charts. It was much the same story with Zoho Show too, the presentation app delivering the basics well, although the interface isn’t as consistent as the others and there’s no support, as yet, for the latest Office .pptx format.

Documents can be created from scratch or existing files uploaded to each of the apps, the Zoho converters working reasonably well in retaining features from the originals. In common with other hosted office apps, however, some errors did creep in when handling more complex files with a fair amount of proofing and error correction required to get the best results.

Where does it disappoint?

As with all hosted services, you’re pretty much at the mercy of your Internet connection as far as performance is concerned. We tested using a typical 8MB broadband service and were pleasantly surprised at how usable it was. It was, however, a lot slower compared to running similar apps locally on a desktop PC, especially when opening or saving documents online.

Document management could be better too. For example we (eventually) worked out that we needed to import documents rather than just upload in order to convert them properly and get access to all the editing tools. Easy enough when we realised, but not made at all obvious.

Size constraints when converting could be an issue too. Plus we disappointed by the lack of what we tend to think of as basic functionality. Such as proper tabs in the Zoho Writer, for example, which were converted to spaces when uploading existing Word documents, resulting in very messy layouts at times. Moreover, even when creating documents from scratch, Zoho Writer would insert spaces whenever the Tab key was pressed. Tracking changes in Word documents was yet another no-no, leaving all sorts of mess behind when converted by Zoho.

Would we recommend it?

For companies with modest requirements, needing to create and manage mostly simple documents, Zoho Business is a credible alternative to a local application suite such as Office. It does a reasonable job, is easy to use and requires little in the way of setup or maintenance. It’s also way, way cheaper. Make any real demands on the Zoho apps, however, and users may start to turn back to their desktop apps. Simply to get the functionality and performance they need, which all too soon runs out when Zoho Business is pushed hard. [7.5]