Zoho a la carte

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We get asked frequently about integration of some Zoho service or another with a third party service, often with that of a competitor. As one recent example, see this thread on Zoho CRM integration with GMail/GTalk. The question often is “Is Zoho all or nothing? If we like and use one Zoho service, would we be forced to use all of them as a bundle?”

The categorical answer is “No, Zoho is not an all or nothing proposition. We fully respect user choice and will fully support mixing and matching Zoho services with competing services.” We have intentionally architected the Zoho suite so that each service stands on its own, and can be mixed and matched with third party services. This “depth-first” architectural strategy, whereby each service is useful by itself (independent of integration with other Zoho services), enables a style of loose-coupled – RESTful, in the technical lingo – integration that makes it just as easy to integrate a Zoho service with a third party as it is with another Zoho service. We believe in customer choice, interoperability and data portability, and we do not want to lock-in any user. And we fully recognize the reality, particularly as a smaller vendor, but even true for very large vendors, that customers do not want to put all their eggs in one basket.

Specifically, to answer the specific question asked in our forums, Zoho CRM will interwork with the Google suite – including the all-important GMail, but with other Googe Apps components as well. But this extends beyond Zoho CRM – all of Zoho services will interwork with third party vendors wherever it makes sense, regardless of whether Zoho competes with that vendor in one aspect or another. As an example, if 37Signals would let us, we would be happy to integrate our Zoho Invoice or Zoho Wiki with their Basecamp project management offering, in spite of the fact that Basecamp competes directly with Zoho Projects.

It is that philosophy that guided us in our integration of the Zoho productivity applications with Salesforce AppExchange – an integration we nearly completed when they decided it wasn’t in their interest, something I actually disagree with; I believe it would actually make the Salesforce ecosystem stronger to let Zoho services in, but then again, perhaps it is in our best interest that they won’t let in Zoho! It is a different matter, of course, that it is their customers who lose.

Zoho a la carte is a fundamental guiding philosophy for us, not just a tactical competitive move. It brings numerous architectural benefits to us, enabling us to move faster in our own development.

Introducing Zoho ‘Affordable’ CRM – Enterprise Edition

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Zoho CRM which is part of our Business Applications set (Zoho Invoice, Zoho Projects, Zoho Meeting, Zoho People, Zoho DB, Zoho Creator etc) is now going one step further with the launch of Zoho CRM – Enterprise Edition.

This new release comes with a broad set of new capabilities making it easier for medium to large organizations to implement Zoho CRM. Some of the enhancements to the update include…

  • Introduction of Role-based Security Administration
  • Enhancements in product Customiation & Data Administration
  • Multi-language Support (11 Languages)
  • SSL Support for Professional & Enterprise Versions
  • Integration with Zoho Sheet
  • and lot more as mentioned here.

The key enhancement is the introduction of the Role-based Security Administration which makes it easier for managing the access permissions of users in an organization with multiple levels of hierarchy. In this Role-based Security module we introduced Roles, Profiles and Groups concept providing greater flexibility in access-control and customization.

The image below summarizes the new Role-based Security Administration section. Existing users: Please look at this document to understand how these changes compare to our previous version.




This video gives a quick introduction to this functionality. An online demo of the application is availble here.

Pricing:

As with other Zoho applications, Zoho CRM is very affordable. Here is the pricing information.

  1. Personal Edition – Free for 3 Users
  2. Professional Edition – $12/User/Month
  3. Enterprise Edition – $25/User/Month

Professional and Enterprise Editions are also free for the first 3 users. Detailed information on Pricing (along with feature separation between these three editions) is available here.

Zoho CRM Integration with Zoho Productivity Suite:

Zoho Sheet is now integrated into Zoho CRM which lets users edit Zoho CRM data on a spreadsheet using the ‘Zoho Sheet View’ option available in most of the modules. This provides an easy way of editing your form-based relational content in a spreadsheet view and saving the changes back to the CRM Database.

This is just a starting point and we plan to do an extended integration with our productivity suite once Zoho CRM is part of our Single Sign-on System (currently in the works).


Competition:

It is a well known fact that Zoho CRM competes with Salesforce. But the unknown fact is that the functionality of Zoho CRM is more broader for Personal and Professional Editions. Here is a quick comparison between these two applications. You’ll notice that ‘Affordable Apps’ doesn’t necessarily mean less-featured apps. All this functionality is available at fraction of the cost. To give you a quick example, for a 5 person organization, the savings with Zoho CRM are 3x and 8x (per year) with our Personal and Professional Editions respectively against the competition.

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More information on this update and the application is available on our new Zoho Wiki-based help. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback on this release.

Very Expensive + Affordable = Still Very Expensive

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That was my response to the announcement that Salesforce.com is integrating their CRM system with Google Apps. I respect what Marc Benioff has done to evangelize the SaaS model in the enterprise, but I cannot bring myself to accept his business model, which is summarized by the spreadsheet below (data courtesy of Google Finance):

Salesforce spends nearly 8 times on sales/marketing as it spends on R&D. Sounds to me a text book definition of “business model bloat”. If you are a customer of Salesforce, it makes you feel really happy that the company spends 8x on selling to you as in writing the code, right?

Let me mention some history here that I believe is relevant (note: I am not under any NDA). Several months ago, Salesforce.com invited us to participate in their AppExchange ecosystem. They knew of our Zoho CRM competition (which is why it was mutually agreed than an NDA was inappropriate), but the AppExchanage folks thought it was still good for their ecosystem. We agreed that it would be good for both of us, so we worked on making Zoho work with AppExchange, with their help & support. We invested in R&D to make the integration work, and we were about a week from launch, when Marc Benioff decided to pull the plug. He invited me for discussions. He offered repeatedly to acquire Zoho outright, which we rejected. I told him there is absolutely no fit between our companies, particularly with his business model (as noted above) and our business model. I told him there is just no cultural fit between our companies and such an acquisition would be miserable for both parties. Finally, he offered to let us integrate Zoho into AppExchange, provided we pull the plug on Zoho CRM. We told him that kind of pre-condition is totally unacceptable, and it also completely negates his claims of openness of their platform. Needless to say, we never did agree on the issue, and we dropped the integration effort.

The reason I am recounting that history is to show just how little Benioff understands the value of open ecosystems. He is still playing a 1990s software game, with expensive software (sorry, software-as-a-service!) and a business model that is sure to make Larry Ellison flinch, which is saying something.

I want to contrast that with our Google Gears integration. Google is our principal competitor, yet neither their team nor ours had any issue at all integrating – it was obvious to us this is the right thing to do for customers. The Google Gears folks bent over backwards to make sure the playing field was level, and we got access to information and support to do the integration right. That is openness.

History shows that integration efforts like the Google/Salesforce one, where the business models are so radically different, don’t prove durable. Ultimately markets will be smart enough to figure out what is obvious to many already: the Salesforce business model is an evolutionary dead-end. The proof is the silent popularity of Zoho CRM, one of the most successful Zoho services to date.

Zoho In The News

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Christian Harris at ZDNet reviewed Zoho Show 2.0 recently. From his review,

Zoho Show is a straightforward to use thanks to its pre-built themes, clipart and shapes, coupled with handy features like drag-and-drop. In fact, anyone familiar with using the web should be able to put together a decent-looking presentation in just a few minutes. And, of course, you can access your presentation from any computer, so long as it’s connected to the internet.

Version 2.0 of Zoho Show has a number of enhancements — most noticeably the new user interface, which has been completely redesigned. The UI is now less cluttered and more intuitive to navigate, and the floating toolbars are a real boon. Support for themes has been improved too, and the application now has over 50 default themes to get you started.

Zoho Show 2.0 integrates much better with Zoho Meeting, an online desktop sharing tool from the same stable. The major benefit here is that you can now quickly and easily switch between applications to share your desktop with the participants viewing your presentation. And Zoho Chat allows you to chat with your audience during remote presentations.

Chris gave 7.5 out of 10 for Zoho Show 2.0. Zoho Invoice which we released a couple of weeks ago has got a very good welcome from small & medium businesses. Peter Piazza writes about the release at CIO.com in an article titled, ‘Zoho Challenges Business App Industry Heavyweights‘ :

Web 2.0 company Zoho has announced the launch of the latest product in its suite of online freeware and payware applications. Zoho Invoice gives users the ability to create everything from estimates to invoices in multiple currencies.

Zoho Invoice is integrated with PayPal, so invoices can be generated and sent to customers, who can then make payments directly through PayPal. The company plans on adding more payment gateways. The application is free for sending up to five invoices per month; four monthly subscription versions range from $5 to $35 and allow from 25 to 1,500 invoices to be sent each month.

Mozilla’s Firefox 3.0 release is being anticipated much by all. And it was our pleasure seeing the Release Notes for Firefox 3 Beta 5 mention Zoho in it!

[Improved in Beta 5!]  Speed: improvements to our JavaScript engine as well as profile guided optimizations have resulted in continued improvements in performance. Compared to Firefox 2, web applications like Google Mail and Zoho Office run twice as fast in Firefox 3 Beta 5, and the popular SunSpider test from Apple shows improvements over previous releases.

Zoho Creator : Handy Tool for Organizing Events, Collecting Data

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Paul McMahon is organising a conference for international school teachers. And he posted his query in a Classroom 2.0 forum, wanting to know about a tool that allowed for staff to self-register for workshops.

I am busily organising a conference (a first in Hong Kong) for international school teachers. I am using eventbrite, a great online tool for conference registration but my next major task is allowing teachers to assign themselves to workshops once I have the programme up. (Yes we spell it that way in Hong Kong too :-)

I am wondering if anyone out there has run a confernce or PD day and allowed for staff to self-register for workshops from a list on during a time period. It would be great if the tool also allowed the teacher to see if a workshop was already quite full. Maybe I could assign a max number and they could see say 20/25 for the workshop.

As I am already losing a bit on the other online tools (Eventbrite and Paypal), it would be good if it was free or very minimal cost. (Yes! I want it all for nothing! Typical of an opportunist Aussie Teacher :-)

And Paul’s query got the answer from James Dykstra.

We are doing the registration for our regional Heritage Fair using Zoho Creator (creator.zoho.com). Our form (embedded here: #) gets the users to fill in all the information we choose and then puts it into a spreadsheet for us. Creator has database functions that I haven’t attempted to use, but they would likely allow you to do the fancier parts of your registration process, including setting limits for certain workshops. Everything on Zoho is available for free. Though we’ve only given it a limited trial (so far about 50 students are registered), I’m quite pleased with the results so far.

Thanks to James for suggesting Zoho Creator! And one more example of Zoho Creator in action : Bryan at CollegeMediaInnovation.org posts about using Zoho Creator to create a list of multimedia projects from various student journalists. The submission form used by Bryan & the data he’d collected. He has also compiled a list of schools doing video as well. Thanks Bryan, for using Zoho Creator!

If you are to organize an event or collect data, take a look at the examples above. And don’t forget to tell us how you are using Zoho Creator in the comments.

UPDATE :

1) Got this tweet from Suzie Vesper of New Zealand. She’s done a couple of nice screencasts on Zoho Creator to act as easy tutorials. 1) Creating a form and 2) embedding it in your blog/website/wiki, downloading the data collected to your computer. The wiki page where she’s embedded the app & the screencast tutorials.

2) Prithwis Mukerjee in the comments points to B-School students using Zoho Creator (in the embedded ‘BlogPostURLs View’, click on each of the URLs & you will see that the students have created Zoho Creator apps & embedding forms in their blog)

Amazon AWS, Google App Engine, Zoho Creator: A Continuum

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As cloud-computing matures, we can see the emergence of various layers of web services, operating at different levels of abstraction, serving different market needs. Take the category of web application creation/hosting, for example.

Consider the EC2 service from AWS: it provides what may be called “virtualized hardware” as a web service. The fundamental virtualized hardware unit is an industry standard x86 server (with specified CPU/RAM/Disk capacity), capable of hosting a Linux binary image. The Linux image can include any kind of program, written in any language available on Linux. The “any kind of program” part is important, as you will see shortly. This provides the most flexibility for a professional programmer, but if your program goes into an infinite loop and occupies 100% of its virtual CPU, AWS will simply let it burn up the CPU-hours – after all, there is no way for them, even in theory, to know if your infinite loop is intentionally coded or a bug.

The second type of service is what Google App Engine announced yesterday. It provides what may be called a “hosted middleware framework”, with the middleware stack having only Python language bindings today, with other language bindings to follow in future. Even when multiple languages are eventually supported, this type of service is quite different from Amazon EC2, because the middleware framework imposes specific constraints on the kind of program that can run on the service. Specifically, Google App Engine service is limited to running what may be called “provably halting programs” (or it will simply be forcibly halted the environment!) – short-running web applications that support the “page oriented computing” model – i.e service a HTTP request with a response and stop. Stand alone programs using multiple threads, such as a web crawler, are not supported. The flexibility lost by the developer comes with a huge benefit. Because of the constraints imposed by the middleware framework, Google can make much stronger guarantees of your application availability than Amazon can – Amazon can guarantee the availability of their virtual CPU, but cannot guarantee your application availability. The service abstraction of App Engine still needs a skilled programmer to create applications, but the effort required is less than what Amazon would need, with the trade-off of a more restrictive programming model.

Finally, Zoho Creator. This provides a service which lets users develop database driven web applications, with the service being accessible to regular users, as opposed to only trained programmers. It starts with a easy-to-use form/view builder interface, and then for more complicated logic, eases the user into the Deluge scripting environment. This scripting environment is intentionally kept very simple, so as to make the system accessible to a large number of users. Much like Google App Engine, Zoho Creator sits on a specific middleware stack, along with its constrained programming model, and its associated benefits/constraints for the application. But rather than exposing the middleware stack as an API only, Zoho Creator provides a higher level of abstraction through a development environment that is accessible to the casual non-programmer – so creating complex views, plugging in validation logic etc. are much simpler.  As an aside, I want to mention that, in principle, it would be possible to layer Zoho Creator on top of Google App Engine  on top of Amazon EC2.

I hope this post has demonstrated how the cloud-services market is increasingly becoming sophisticated with various kinds of tiered services serving different needs. Each type of service brings with it a different abstraction, a different programming model, and of course, its benefits and constraints.

Ning (1.0) Was Too Early

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That was the first thought that crossed my mind as I looked at Google AppEngine. Yeah, there are differences – Ning 1.0 was PHP, AppEngine is Python. You hosted your apps in myapp.ning.com vs myapp.appspot.com. But here is the most important difference of all: Ning was too early, and it was, well, Ning, as opposed to Google. Ning smartly realized that early too, so Ning 2.0 moved to a new sexy model of “Build Your Own Social Network”, but I believe the heart of their Ning 1.0 system is still in there, carefully tucked away so as not to scare the average social networker with query languages and such.

Here is my reaction to AppEngine: I asked our engineers to brush up on their Python. Fortunately, we have experience in it – a lot of our test automation scripts are Python based. I think AppEngine is going to be monstrously successful. And we at Zoho are going to embrace it whereever we can, just as we are already playing with Amazon AWS.

Fundamentally, we are a software company. We don’t compete against Google because of our infrastructure advantage over them, that’s for sure. Initiatives like Amazon AWS and Google AppEngine let us be a software company again – and that is a good thing! So here we come, Python … and to Ning, here is someone who remembered your original innovation. Thank you!