Zoho Virtual Office Launching Tomorrow; Racing Google to Market

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Online productivity company Zoho is finally bringing all its various services together into one offering with the release of the Zoho Virtual Office at tomorrow’s Office 2.0 conference.

Virtual Office, or ZohoX, will integrate most of the 10+ Zoho services already available and add several more like Webmail and calendaring. The whole thing will be unveiled on Wednesday but there’s a small screenshot at the end of this post. The service will be free for individual use and cost $9 per user for SMBs. Users across multiple locations can access the same workspace with their own admin and user list; the ability to collaborate across organizations will be available soon.

Zoho offers almost any productivity application you can think of online and almost everything not included now that I asked about the company told me is on its way soon. Zoho is also included in the exclusive WebEx Connect partnership program for web conferencing. See our previous coverage of Zoho here.

Last week the company implemented a single sign on system across Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet, Zoho Show, Zoho Planner, Zoho Creator and Zoho Chat. The remaining services from the company will be included in single sign on soon. Zoho products generally work well – an Infoworld review of web based productivity services last week for example said that Zoho “blew the rest out of the water.”

I asked the company what they were going to do about the spectre of Google Office. Besides the fact that there is no such product available yet, Zoho emphasized that they are aiming at usability akin to desktop applications. GMail, for example, is not something that an entire office of Outlook based workers can be expected to rapidly adopt they say. I think that’s a viable strategy. Zoho is making a strong, early showing in the online productivity space and I think they stand a good chance in the market.

The 60 employee company reports that they already have more than 100,000 distinct individual users. With single sign on that means they aren’t counting Zoho Show and Zoho Writer users twice. With the unveiling of Zoho Virtual Office this week, that number may make a big jump.

New Services

The newest individual tool available with the new release is Zoho Webmail. Instead of getting a new email account, Zoho users can plug multiple POP email accounts into the Zoho interface. That interface can switch from an Outlook style view to a Gmail style view with a single click. Emails can be previewed in Ajax drop down boxes, organized in hierarchal folders and viewed as threads. Each email account comes with 1 GB of free storage. RSS subscription will be added to webmail soon.

The webmail service is tightly integrated with Zoho’s new calendar, task lists and note taking. When you create a new event or note based on an email, those items include a link back to the email from which they came. The full calendar program supports import and export in iCal now and RSS subscription is forthcoming.

Email, calendar and task manager functions are all tied as well to a group discussion or forum component. From inside the Groups forums users can also do IM with Zoho Chat, share events, tasks and documents.

Virtual Desktop

These new features, not to mention the long list of services already offered by Zoho, are all managed through the desktop view in Virtual Office. It’s a well organized dashboard that pulls in the newest information from and access to all the different features.

Files can be edited without being downloaded and multiple versions are saved. MP3 files can also be listened to from inside the Virtual Office. Right now the various Zoho services open in a frame inside the Virtual Office, but in coming weeks all the functionality of services like Zoho Writer and Zoho Show will be baked into the desktop view itself.

A link list can be added to the sidebar for pages users want to view from inside Virtual Office. The company demonstrated this to me using the Google RSS Reader and it worked well to click from that link over to a Zoho app and back again.

That dashboard can be displayed with custom skins, custom header links and a user’s company logo. There’s WAP mobile access.

All of the above worked fairly well in the demo I did and I expect it will only improve in time. The interface was very responsive, making good use of Ajax. Zoho Virtual Office does a good job of pulling a long list of productivity apps into one coherent workspace. It didn’t feel overloaded to me at all.

The Future of Zoho

This is a very dynamic company so I had to pry into their plans for the future. Here’s some things users can look forward to.

  • Zoho CRM integration with Virtual Office.
  • An EchoSign partnership to allow esignature requests and processing from within Zoho Writer (look for this in a matter of weeks.)
  • Outlook and Thunderbird sync plugins.
  • Skype integration with all the products, probably three months away.
  • Six more Zoho products launching over the next 6 months.

Computing is moving to the cloud and Zoho is positioning itself well to be an important player. Concerns like security, interface responsiveness and service stability are being worked on throughout the sector now and I think will be shored up quickly as customers arrive and resources are transferred into R&D by these companies or very forward looking startups are acquired. See for example Seattle startup MyPW, a consumer facing RSA type provier of consumer security for web services. I just got off the phone with another company that I’ll write about Friday that seeks to provide a free API to services like Zoho for automatic syncing with local storage.

The Office 2.0 conference should exciting but we’ll see if anyone can steal the show from Zoho.

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