Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Part 11, Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office

Zeal for Zoho for SOHO

Part B - Looking at the basic applications

In Part A we examined the extensive list of Zoho applications and how Zoho can coordinate with Google apps. Now we review some of Zoho's specific applications for individual, small office, nonprofit and frugal workers.

Zoho Writer

​Although Zoho’s Writer has been around for years, the newest version is still in beta testing , so it has more features, but they might not all be well documented. One apparent bug is that the Zoho menus on top of the page disappear when opening an older document, but reappear when you select a new document (at least in Chrome).

One of my favorite features in Writer is that the interface combines both icon-based ribbons (similar to those in Microsoft Office since 2007) plus the option of accessing the same features from a drop-down menu. This is something many users wish Microsoft had done when they rolled out their 2007 apps.

Another distinction from Google's Writer, is a bottom-of-the-screen bar which tells you the number of pages (and which page you are on), the version number, the author, how long since last modified, creation date, word and character counts, all updated whenever the document is saved (which is automatic or manual). This could make it easier to track versions to revert to an earlier one. The bar also has three icons: click on the cloud and it lists your collaborators and offers a chat box; another for contextual comments, and a third for tags. Zoho allows you to sort documents into folders (like Microsoft) and by assigning tags (like Google). 

There's also a small chat bar available, if you want.

Writer offers 27 English language fonts plus the graphical Webdings, equations, headers/footers, footnotes. You can directly insert HTML or view the entire document as HTML (which you can't do now on Google); you can also import or create HTML CSS stylesheets. Watermarks are a nice new feature, and you can select emoticons, which seems a little odd for a service geared towards business. Like Google, you can email the file directly if you don’t want to use the email app.

One of the few features Zoho doesn't include is a paragraph (or character) style sheet (which MS Word and Google Docs have). This may be an issue if you regularly work on long, heavily formatted documents.

The REVIEW menu includes spell check, a custom dictionary, word count, and a thesaurus, and accesses your history, too. (There is no grammar checker.) The SHARE options include a Post to Blog command. 

You can publish any document so anybody on the internet can access it, or invite selected users to read and/or edit it. (They don’t have to register with Zoho to read a document, but they must register to edit it.) 

The Doc Roll creates a embeddable link so you can post a link on your blog or website for a published document. There is a facility for Digital Signatures, and a separate Lock command so nobody else can work on your doc until you say its OK. 

VIEWS includes options for viewing the HTML code. The Page Format option lets you also assign some font and paragraph level spacing for the entire document.

Mailings lets you create mailmerge (or other merge) documents. Individuals are limited to sending 500 email documents per day. Enterprise accounts are unlimited.

There is a shared templates area, but there's not even a fraction of what you’ll find in Google or Microsoft. (But you should be able to open a template in Google Apps or Microsoft, save it, and import it into Zoho!) There are no graphic art search options as there are in Google or Microsoft and no word art (as in Microsoft -- but I find most of Microsoft's word art styles to be ugly).​

​​​You can export the documents from Zoho Writer to the following formats:
  • Microsoft Word - both .doc and .docx files 
  • OpenOffice Writer files 
  • RTF (Rich Text Format) files, which you should be able to open in virtually any other word processor 
  • Text only files 
  • HTML (including links to your blog) 
  • PDF creation (but not editing of imported PDFs)
You can import all the same formats plus graphics, up to 10 MB in size. Modern MS Word documents import fine, but some of the graphics may shift position.

There is a bookmarklet you can add to your browser toolbar to take any text you find online and clip it to your Zoho Writer account. This appears to work similarly to Evernote's bookmarklet. 

Currently, you cannot use Right to Left languages in Zoho Writer, but they say it is part of their road map for the future. ​

Other Zoho applications

In other Zoho apps, their Spreadsheet has a decidedly different interface than Google’s although (with a cursory look) it appears to support most of the same features. There is one toolbar for basic functions plus menus for publishing, sharing, and other tasks. It also let you embed a link in your blog or website to access a published spreadsheet.  You can create Macros and use VBA editing, too.

Zoho Mail is a good email hosting site. It’s main advantage over Gmail and Outlook is that it let’s you assign emails to folders, like Outlook, and also assign tags (like Gmail), so it’s very flexible. You can create rules for sorting, filing and responding to email. I like the fact  that, when sending an email from Zoho, you can attach any document from Zoho Docs, your own hard drive, and even from Google Docs! (I wish Gmail would let you do that.) Another nice feature is that you have links to all your available Zoho applications on the left hand side of the page, so you can switch back and forth easily. 

Zoho Notebook has grown to include many of the features of OneNote or Evernote. It lets you store text, audio, video, HTML, and embed URLs, RSS, lists, Zoho writer docs, spreadsheets, and presentations, and files. You can also create text files and spreadsheets directly within the notebook with a mini-Writer or -Sheet interface. You can share notebooks with others and publish them, too. If you already use Evernote, you might not need Zoho Notebook, but it does have a few features that Evernote doesn't have: You can embed video in the free Zoho Notebook -- you need the paid version of Evernote to do that. You can create real spreadsheets in Zoho, Evernote just uses tables.

If you use Zoho as your main workspace, combining the Notebook and the Writer clipping bookmark might be a nice way to centralize all your research in one location. But there are no desktop or phone applications for Zoho Notebook as there are for Evernote.

Zoho just recently updated its CRM application, which you could use free as a contact manager on steroids. The new version includes the ability to import data from your LinkedIn contacts. I haven't had time to experiment with it, but it would be interesting to see if you could use the free individual version of CRM as an alternate LinkedIn database. (If any readers try it, please let me know how it works.) You can import and attach Google docs to Zoho's CRM records as well.

Freelancers might like the Invoice application. Freelance HR professionals might want to take a look at Zoho'sRecruit and People applications if you're not already committed to another system.


If you are ready to take all your creative and business activity to the Cloud, Zoho has a lot to recommend it. If you prefer some of Google's applications (say, perhaps, its spreadsheet or Gmail), there's no reason not to have a Google application in one browser tab and Zoho apps in others. You can try all of Zoho's apps for free, and most stay free for up to three users. Some of the workgroup and internet communications features may not be feasible for that small a group, but Zoho's rates should be reasonable. Zoho also offers discounted rates for nonprofit corporations.

If I was forced to select only one web app site for my online work, I'd probably chose Zoho, although the ability to mix and match other apps is great. With Google, Zoho, and many other software and specialized online applications available, corporations, web workers, telecommuters, and small and home office entrepreneurs  have many more usable choices than ever before.​​

Keywords: Zoho, Writer, apps, office, SOHO, collaboration, business