Of the many ways that the Internet is transforming our personal and business lives, the one that has arguably received less attention than it deserves, is the movement of data storage and processing functionality from the desktop to the Web. This trend has been in progress since the earliest days of Web pages and sites. But it really gained momentum with the introduction of Web-based email services, such as Yahoo Mail, in which the software is running on a website, instead of locally on the user's hard drive.
Individual office productivity applications, such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, as well as office productivity suites, such as Microsoft Office, have long resided on the desktop. In fact, even when the Web had penetrated the business world, and workers were comfortable visiting websites and sending email messages, the majority of such people would never have imagined that those long-dominant desktop programs would ever be seriously threatened by Web-based alternatives. But that is exactly what has happened. For instance, Google Docs is the company's free online service for creating, modifying, and distributing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, as well as storing files of all types. As a consequence, a growing number of companies and other organizations are abandoning their Microsoft Office installations — and the licensing fees — and opting instead for the Google solution.
Yet Google is not the only player in town. There are other free office productivity suites, for both the desktop and the Web. An excellent example of the former is OpenOffice.org, and an example online is Zoho. As is evident from its home page, Zoho offers 21 applications, in addition to several utilities that allow you to create and manage online tests and polls, monitor websites, view uploaded documents, and optionally share them with other people. The applications are divided into two groups — those for productivity and collaboration (presumably valuable for noncommercial purposes), and those specific to business use.
All of the Zoho applications can be used free of charge by an individual, while some of them require a subscription fee if and when they are used by an organization. As further evidence of the company's commitment to openness and interoperability, you can create and log into your Zoho account utilizing any existing access from Google, Google Apps, Yahoo, or Facebook. If you choose to login this way, then when you try to do so the first time, you will be prompted to create a Zoho username, which you will use for all future login attempts.
Once you have successfully created a Zoho account, you will have access to not only most of the Zoho services (without having to create separate accounts for each one), but you will also be able to review and update your account information — organized into four categories: Home, Profile, Settings, and Groups.
Turning to the topic of the applications themselves, twenty-one apps are simply too many to discuss in a single article, so the focus here will be on three of the apps that would likely be of great value for office productivity — specifically, email services, word processing, and spreadsheets.
The number of business communication methods continues to grow, as traditional methods (such as postal mail) are supplemented or replaced by much more modern methods (such as Internet-based telephony). Yet the primary means of global communication, in both the commercial and noncommercial sectors, is undoubtedly email — even when taking into account that the bulk of email nowadays is spam. Web companies of all sizes and sectors offer email services, and Zoho is no exception.
Zoho Mail does not display advertising of its own (unlike Google's Gmail), and it does its best to filter out the unwanted advertising of spammers. You can choose to have an email address that incorporates Zoho's domain name (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org) or your own business's domain name (e.g., email@example.com). If you want to access your email account using a handheld device, then you can use the mobile version of Zoho Mail, which supports Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia, and Windows Mobile phones. You can download messages to your local computer, so you can read them and compose replies even when not connected to the Internet, using Google Gears. In addition, you can send instant messages from within your account.
The Mail login page also indicates that you would have ample storage space for your messages, but the exact limit does not appear to be explicitly indicated anywhere. Some articles on the Web state that there is no limit (similar to Yahoo Mail).
As expected, when you login to your email account, you start in the inbox, which is organized in the standard fashion, with navigation elements listed in the left-hand sidebar, and the inbox contents shown in the (much larger) right-hand panel.
Among the navigation elements on the left, there are the usual folders, but also labels and views. This suggests that Zoho Mail combines the folders of Yahoo Mail with the labels of Gmail — possibly the best of both worlds.
At the top of the page, in the upper right corner, is a set of navigation links.
These links allow you to directly access any one of 14 other Zoho applications, which is opened in a new browser window. The product links are specific to Zoho Mail, such as help information and the FAQ. Note that this email service provides keyboard shortcuts, and they are quite similar to those of Gmail. Within your Zoho Mail settings, you can add other email addresses and POP accounts, set display options, disable keyboard shortcuts, and specify a blacklist and a whitelist of email addresses and domain names (to override spam filtering).
All in all, Zoho Mail appears to be quite capable and easy to use.
Word Processing Online
Even though Zoho now offers almost two dozen different applications and utilities, the company started in 2005 with only one, Zoho Writer, which is their online answer to Microsoft Word. Zoho Writer supports all of the functionality one would expect from a top-of-the-line word processor: text formatting, coloring, indentation, bullet lists, images, tables, Internet links, mathematics equations (utilizing LaTeX, MathMagic, or MathType), HTML, headers, footers, dynamic fields (similar to those in Word), comments, emoticons, a spell checker, dictionary, thesaurus, integration with email, and much more.
As part of the aforesaid effort toward interoperability, Zoho Writer supports all the common document formats, including Microsoft Word (DOC), OpenOffice.org (SXW), Office Open XML (DOCX), OpenDocument text (ODT), RTF, and HTML. In addition, you can easily embed images and video from social media sites, including YouTube, Flickr, and Vimeo.
Unlike all of the desktop-bound predecessors of the past, Zoho Writer is very much geared toward collaboration, and allows the sharing of any document with a select group of users, or publishing it publicly. You can enable these readers to add in-line comments and discuss the changes utilizing the built-in chat capabilities. One advantage to multiple users being able to work on a single instance of a document, is that you completely avoid all of the problems with having to email the document to others, which immediately creates multiple copies, and then multiple versions, assuming that those people start making changes to the individual copies that they received.
In the world of business productivity tools, word processing documents and spreadsheets go together like peanut butter and jam. Online number-crunching is made easy with Zoho Sheet, which in many respects looks similar to Writer.
Sheet's functionality is also similar to that of Writer, because it makes possible much of the same text formatting, although naturally constrained by the context of a spreadsheet. It allows you to publish spreadsheets and derived charts to others on the Web, and also perform the same type of collaboration with teammates. With a recognition that there are countless existing spreadsheets created using Microsoft Excel, there exists a plugin that allows you to integrate Sheet with Excel. Interestingly, you can set up Sheet so that it will automatically process data available as external feeds, in both RSS and Atom format.
So if you have had enough of Microsoft Office's limitations and expense, then consider switching over to Zoho, and experience office productivity for the 21st century.