Zoho offers a slightly different take. While Google Docs presents a Spartan UI that emphasises the online aspect of the suite, Zoho makes more of an effort to mimic the look and feel of traditional desktop applications. The results might seem more familiar to new users, but they also underscore the limitations of this strategy.

One problem is that Zoho's offering seems to have grown rapidly, with little thought to consistency. One application's menu might resemble a panel of buttons, while the next looks like tabs, and a third favors a drop down layout. Icons and menus move around the toolbars from one app to the next. The spreadsheet's interface offers a choice of colored themes, but the other applications do not. A pull down menu makes moving between applications simple enough, but the lack of a common UI undermines the illusion that this is an integrated suite.

Zoho WordZoho has a few features that Google Docs lacks, but most are minor. For example, Google's word processor offers a robust equation editor based on the TeX language, but Zoho's equation editor is better. Zoho's thesaurus gives the part of speech for synonyms, while Google's does not. And Zoho allows you to insert HTML and CSS directly from files on the Web, rather than simply editing it in your browser as Google Docs allows you to do.

Like Google Docs, Zoho encourages web based publishing and collaboration. Here, Zoho's minor advantages include the ability to post to blogs directly using the MetaWebLog or Blogger APIs, the ability to generate a "doc roll" of recent documents for embedding in a website, and integration with EchoSign for digital signatures.

Zoho is slowly implementing more advanced features, too. Its spreadsheet offers rudimentary support for pivot tables and charts, while the word processor features a very basic mail merge facility. Most remarkable, however, is the spreadsheet's elementary support for Visual Basic macros. I have to confess that when I saw some of my macros running automatically in the browser, I was stunned. Still, other scripts failed with error messages.

All of these strengths aside, however, the overall problems with Zoho's applications are similar to those of Google Docs. While the suite is amazing as a web based curiosity and passable as a lightweight set of productivity applications, power users will be dismayed by its lack of sophisticated features and its halfhearted implementations of existing ones.

Zoho SpreadsheetZoho's support for Microsoft Office file formats is better than that of Google Docs, but only slightly. Page layout and image placement in the word processor are questionable, and revisions made using Track Changes get corrupted, just as in Google Docs. Support for Excel 2007 embedded graphs is a bit better than Google's, but the output is similarly disappointing. Imported presentations are reduced to static slideshows, losing their animated transitions. And as with Google Docs, printing is unreliable, particularly where fonts and images are concerned.

The beta status of Zoho's applications might also be an issue for some. I'd hardly call Google Docs bulletproof, but Zoho did seem to freeze up the browser more often (though a page reload would usually solve the problem).

Zoho's real strength lies not in the merits of its individual applications, however, but in its offering as a whole. In addition to its productivity suite, Zoho offers a whole range of back office business applications, including groupware, conferencing, invoice management, project management, CRM, and more. Most are free for limited use with a modest amount of storage space. For increased capacity and a greater number of users, Zoho charges a per head subscription fee.


Zoho could appeal to small businesses who like the idea of a suite of a la carte business applications that don't require a dedicated IT staff to install and maintain. Although it seems unlikely that Zoho's online productivity apps will meet your needs as well as desktop software would, if the SaaS way of doing things is attractive to you, Zoho could be a cost effective option that provides a wide range of business functionality with a minimum of hassle.