Although it's the least-known of the hosted office suite vendors, Zoho was, in fact, the first to offer such a service, way back in 2005. Since then it has grown to support over 3 million users with a portfolio of more than 20 applications, from simple office productivity tools like those reviewed here through to hosted conferencing, CRM and database products.
For our tests we chose Zoho Business which, much like Google Apps, bundles together word processing (Zoho Writer), spreadsheet (Zoho Sheet) and presentation (Zoho Show) applications with hosted email and instant messaging services, plus calendar, contacts and tasks. Designed to be used by small to medium-sized businesses, Zoho Business also supports document sharing and collaborative working, with real-time collaborative editing an integral feature.
A simple web-based dashboard is used to administer the service, and other Zoho and third-party tools can be added if required. When reatricted to three or fewer users, Zoho Business is free; for four or more it'll cost you $50 (£33) per user per year — the same as Google Apps Premier Edition.
Email is at the heart of Zoho Business, providing full support for custom domain names plus collaborative working in the form of shared contacts and calendars. You also get shared storage — admittedly limited to just 1GB per organisation, but additional space can be purchased as needed — with multi-level folder controls and document versioning supported as standard.
Accessed over an 8Mbps broadband connection, the Zoho applications were quick to load and reasonably responsive apart from the odd unexplained hang. We tried it using several browsers — IE, Firefox and Chrome — all of which worked well, as should Apple's Safari. We found the interface clear and consistent, if a little conservative as far as style is concerned. Drag and drop support is available in places, but otherwise everything is done using menus. If we have one major criticism it would have to be the somewhat dated UI.
As with the other services we tested, files can be created from scratch using Zoho Business or uploaded, either from the local PC, Google Docs or other online storage. There's support for a wide range of formats, including documents created in Office 2007/2010 and OpenOffice, plus extensive export facilities, including the ability to publish direct to the web and create PDF files from the Zoho editors.
Printing is done via HTML in the browser and works reasonably well, although we did have a few hiccups and would like to see more control over page layout and printer settings.
Document fidelity is generally well maintained when uploading files, although complex documents did cause a few problems and the Zoho converters sometimes fell down on quite simple things — tab conversion, for example. We found it much harder than expected to organise files, and had to import (and by implication) convert documents rather than simply upload them to access all the available editing tools. It was all easy enough when we realised what was needed, but not at all obvious at first.
Zoho Writer offers MS Word-like functionality, although its tab handling could be better
On the plus side, once we became familiar with the way the product worked we were impressed by the functionality on offer. Zoho Writer, for example, is very close to Word, providing all of the layout and formatting tools we've come to expect — including the ability to insert tables and illustrations and control text flow around them. A spell-checker, thesaurus and word count tool are also provided, plus a horizontal layout ruler. Tabs and indents are instantly converted to spaces, though, which is annoying. You can also perform simple mail merges using Zoho, albeit with CSV files as the data source with a limit of just 100 records at a time.
Zoho Sheet offers plenty of formatting and calculation tools, and supports both graphs and pivot charts
Zoho Sheet works well, allowing you to upload and edit complicated spreadsheets. Extensive formatting and calculation tools are available, and you can create both simple graphs and pivot charts. Likewise, all the basics are covered in the presentation app, Zoho Show, although the interface here is a little different from the others, which is confusing. Animation effects have also yet to be added, and support for the latest Office 2010 PPTX format is missing.
Zoho Show lacks animation effects, but otherwise offers a good set of basic presentation features
The ability to deliver presentations remotely is a useful feature, while collaborative working is an option in all the Zoho apps. Moreover, just like Google, Zoho has its developers introduce new features on a regular basis, with no updating needed at the user end in order to access them.
We'd like to see a little more in the way of documentation and online help, plus simplified navigation from one document to another in Zoho. Such niggles aside, however, we think there's enough in Zoho Business to tempt small organisations away from desktop dependence and into the cloud. And we haven't even started on the email and associated collaboration features — functionality that adds yet more to the mix, making Zoho's service a compelling solution.