Zoho office suite adds offline editing functions

Features to be phased into all 15 applications

The free Web browser-based Zoho office productivity suite is about to become more useful and flexible. Zoho developers are adding capabilities that enable offline editing and storage of Zoho-created documents for PC and Mac users.

In an announcement on its blog today, the Pleasanton, Calif-based company, a division of AdventNet Inc., said it will first add the new capabilities to its Zoho Writer word-processing application. The offline capabilities will be added to other applications in the office suite in the future. There's also a new "comments" feature that enables users to add notes to their Zoho-created documents.

Vegesna said the offline editing features will be integrated into 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 synchronization [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 Web 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, Web browser-based product that works atop Google Inc.'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 additions of offline editing for its Writer application come before Google has built in a similar capability for its own Google Apps online productivity suite. "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 Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc. "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. Not allowing users to access their documents offline is often a major limiting factor with these kinds of applications, and Zoho's upgrade is well timed, he said, adding, "I think this is a good move on their part."

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

Dan Kusnetzky, principal analyst at Kusnetzky Group in Osprey, Fla., 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-based 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.

In a Computerworld online comparison of office suites published in January, Zoho's office applications finished second to ThinkFree's suite out of four competitors.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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