Zoho has announced the availability of Zoho Discussions. Of itself you might think this is a smallish me-too announcement given that it can be construed as support forums-reinvented for the new millennium with some bells and whistles thrown in. That would be a gross underestimate of the company's offering or its longer term intent.
Looking at the extensive feature set alone should provide some clues. At a high level - and I'm cherry picking:
In pointing Discussions in the direction of customer support, Zoho is opening the door to pro-active customer service that can be executed in a number of different ways, according to both the business problem and the user's preferred method of handling. That could be an invite only chat session, internal and/or outbound email or forums. At that level it sounds a bit like our new good friend Social CRM but again that would only be a piece of the equation.
Before moving on I'd like to say that making forums explicit is a really smart move. Despite all the talk of blogs etc, many of those I interact with ask 'What's wrong with using forums?' Nothing at all but in extending the metaphor Zoho is appealing to a ready made audience with something that's fresh and intriguing.
Imagine that the functionality contained in Discussions is now accessible to Zoho CRM, Projects, Sheet and Writer via a single mouse click. Now you have the start of a very rich collaborative business environment in which you can do one heck of a lot more than simply flog 'stuff.' Take another step and imagine that Zoho integrates with QuickBooks. Now you're into a whole new league where Zoho might have the capability of turning transactional data into valuable information that can be mined in real time and merged with data that's emerging in the more social styles of application, forums and so on.
When Zoho goes this route (not if), then we see the emergence of what I've been arguing for several years: content and process in context = transformational value. No more blog/wiki/RSS etc siloes to be hand integrated into the transactions that drive bottom line success but real time in-flight information that can be used as the kernel for the kinds of alert systems needed to drive transformational value in/around and across collaborative teams.
Zoho isn't going on the record with this but it doesn't deny the direction either. Given the company's development history, I'm betting this is where they go. They'll integrate third parties along the way so watch how they do it. Zoho always integrates first and develops later as it learns how users interact. It also spends time eating its own dogfood as the beta test bed for what you see today. With a 1,000 internal users focused on saas apps to pick from, they can easily test, debug, retest and polish before any service sees the light of day.
What does this mean? Those of us who have bemoaned the feet of clay state of enterprise apps have long held the view that we have as yet to see the emergence of a credible alternative to traditional ERP or for that matter the current saas incumbents like Salesforce.com and NetSuite. Zoho is not ready for prime time. But it can scale, has a burgeoning set of 'good enough' integrated applications and now, with Discussions, the jump off point to start hammering at the doors of SMEs who might otherwise be tempted by a combination of Salesforce.com, Google Apps for Enterprise and possibly a bit of CODA2Go thrown in.
Zoho will say that it is firmly rooted in the SME space and will most likely play a bit below the place where Salesforce.com and NetSuite position themselves. That's a huge whitespace but one where it is possible to articulate a coherent and valuable story.
Aside and Update: for a bit of fun I asked the Twitterati what they understand is the direction with Discussions. @lehawes nailed it: They're becoming a Business Operating System.