The free browser-based Zoho office productivity suite is getting an offline mode, the company has said.

Zoho developers are working on enabling offline editing and storage of Zoho-created documents for PC and Mac users.

The company said it will first add offline capabilities to its Zoho Writer word-processing service. The offline mode will be added to other applications in the suite in the future. There's also a new "comments" feature that enables users to add notes to their Zoho-created documents.

Zoho evangelist Raju Vegesna said the offline editing features will be added to Zoho Writer in three or four weeks. In the meantime, users will at least be able to view their Zoho-created documents in read-only mode while they are offline.

"This is just a first step," Vegesna said. "It's just a matter of testing the platform and making sure that everything is working fine" before offering the full offline editing capabilities.

"This was fairly straightforward," he said. "I think the next challenge will be synchronisation [of online and offline documents],” which will be ready when the new capabilities launch.

Zoho Writer users will see a "Go Offline" link at the top of their browsers where they can review their documents until the editing functions are added.

The Zoho office suite, which has been available for about two years, is a proprietary, browser-based product that works atop Google's open-source Google Gears platform.

Users only have to download and install Google Gears to access the online Zoho office suite, Vegesna said. The company uses Google Gears instead of building its own platform for the software and is a regular contributor to the Google Gears project.

"We use all the open-source components at the back end, and we build all our proprietary applications," he said. "That's pretty much what we're doing with Google Gears." Zoho has been working on the updates for about a month, he said.

Ironically, Zoho's upcoming offline editing feature comes before Google has built in a similar capability for its own Google Apps competitor. "We are small, fast and nimble," Vegesna said. "We move fast. That's how we were able to set it up. Google is a big company now."

The offline storage and editing capabilities were added in response to user requests and feedback from software reviewers, Vegesna said.

Zoho's office suite is composed of about 15 applications, including Writer, and applications for spreadsheets and presentations, all written using Java and AJAX.

The other Zoho office applications will be equipped with offline editing and storage features every one to two months until they are all completed.

Vegesna said there are about 300,000 users of the products so far.

Users can save Zoho-created documents and access them offline using other office suites, including Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, but it can be unwieldy to switch back and forth and maintain file formats, Vegesna said. "That's the reason that we're offering a seamless approach with this update."

Last year, AdventNet released a plug-in for Microsoft Office users to allow them to save documents in Microsoft formats more easily.

Several analysts said the Zoho announcement is intriguing.

"I think this is an interesting case of someone beating Google to the punch for once," said Brian Kotlyar, an analyst at Yankee Group. "We're seeing a fair amount of this, where companies are adding offline capabilities to online applications" to help users stay connected to their documents wherever they are, he said.

"Connectivity is improving every day, but there are still places where connecting isn't perfect," Kotlyar said.

Dan Kusnetzky, principal analyst at Kusnetzky Group, said Zoho's move is particularly important because workers are so mobile today.

"People need to access what they've developed, not only when they are sitting at their desks but when they are in an airplane" or elsewhere, he said. "This has gotten in the way of anyone who has tried to offer an online-only service."

One difficulty with online applications, however, is that they can be more complicated to use in concert with regulatory requirements that call for monitoring of document creation, storage and changes, he said.

"I suspect there will be some success because people are obviously looking to do their work at low or no cost," Kusnetzky said, noting that users want alternatives to proprietary offerings like Microsoft Office. "I think they're responding to competitive pressures as well" by adding the offline editing and storage features.