Understanding Zoho, the Quiet Company Taking on Google and Microsoft

Zoho, a software company started in 2005, has built applications that compete with Google and even Microsoft. The vendor believes it can stay in the game by having a quick development cycle that adds new features to their products faster than the big guys.

By C.G. Lynch
Tue, July 29, 2008

CIO — Here's an interesting strategy for a new software company: create applications that place you squarely in the competitive sights of Google and Microsoft, bypass venture capital funding, and rebuff an acquisition offer from Salesforce.com, the surging software as a service (SaaS) company that delivers its products over the Web.

That's been the exact path of Zoho, a SaaS company launched in 2005 that offers a wide range of online software, including e-mail, a word processor, spreadsheets, wikis, and even a customer relationship management application that it sells to sales and marketing departments. In all, Zoho sells 17 productivity and collaboration apps, all for prices that, by traditional software standards, are dirt cheap.

For the whole lot of Zoho's business applications, it costs a mere $50 per user per year (the same price that Google asks large enterprises for its Google Apps software). By contrast, the Professional Version of Microsoft Office, the popular software found on workstations throughout most of the corporate world, retails for as high as $499, the same price as some personal computers on the shelf at Wal-Mart.

Like Google, Zoho is betting on the cheapness of delivering software over the Web and hosting the data on their own servers to cannibalize the traditional "on premise" method of businesses buying software (like Microsoft's) on discs and installing it manually on employee workstations and company servers.

Zoho's software doesn't care what kind of hardware companies use, or what operating systems run on top of them. People merely need an internet connection and a Web-browser to access and use Zoho applications.

"Software is commoditizing as a result," says Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of both Zoho and its parent organization, AdventNet, a privately held company that handles IT support and data center maintenance. "It's going to be a more high volume, low margin business now."

Despite Google and its deep pockets to invest in Google Apps, Zoho stays competitive with Google on price. Vembu has a 200 person developer team in India release new features rapidly. In the process, industry analysts say Zoho has developed a product capable of competing, impressive given what it's up against.

"They've got more applications than Google [Apps]," says Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst at AMR Research that examines emerging technologies. "The apps they have are richer. They just don't have the publicity vehicle that Google has."

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