Zoho targets the iPhone in mobile office race

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Online office specialist Zoho is targeting the iPhone in the race with Google to provide full mobile document editing.

Zoho provides a free suite of integrated productivity applications such as word processing and spreadsheets, many with more advanced features than Google's offerings.

While Zoho is one of the biggest challengers to Google's online suite of office applications, the service plans to strengthen ties with the search engine giant, says Sridhar Vembu - CEO of Zoho's parent company AdventNet.

Speaking at the CeBIT Australia trade show in Sydney, Vembu said Zoho plans to take advantage of the iPhone v2.0's capabilities to offer full document editing via a mobile device.

"Only after the iPhone's release has mobile browsing really taken off in any significant way. [From our logs] almost 70 to 80 percent of mobile users are using an iPhone. I have a regular phone with a browser but it's so tiny and so difficult to use, I hardly ever go to the browser. Once I got the iPhone it was really a lot better," Vembu said.

"The problem is that mobile browsers have some limitations. In the next version of the iPhone software they're going to fix that.

"Primarily we're focused on the iPhone because it has the most sophisticated browser. We will support the IE browser in Windows Mobile, but in each case there are going to be some limitations, it's not going to be the entire feature set."

Zoho was one of the first online services to take advantage of Google Gears to offer offline document editing via a browser, launching the service before Google applied it to its own online word processor.

Zoho also offers a Microsoft Word plugin, to sync online and desktop files, and is working on a similar feature for OpenOffice.

While Google and Zoho are clearly rivals, Vembu doesn't see Google as the enemy.

"We are going after power users who appreciate breadth and depth of services. We recognise that Google's brand and reach is going to win most of the consumer market, but as people get a taste this will change," he said.

"It's like once Starbucks entered the market, other specialised coffee shops actually flourished as people developed a taste for good coffee. That's what happening in this market. To some extent Google is helping us by creating a market."

To complete its online offering, Zoho is developing an email service which is currently in private beta but should go public in June. Zoho also has partnerships with several online storage vendors, allowing users to edit stored documents via Zoho and sync online documents with their desktop.

Despite often outpacing Google in the development of new features, Zoho is looking to form closer ties with the internet giant.

"We are going to offer documents automatically synced with Google so you have two copies - one in Zoho and one in Google.

"To a large extent they are defining an ecosystem and we very much are partners with them. They are a very open company that wants to nurture this cloud ecosystem," Vembu said.

"Still I would say Google is definitely the one major challenge to us, because they have a solution today. Microsoft is talking about it, but they don't have it yet. Longer term I think Microsoft is going to be formidable, I definitely don't underestimate them, but they face a strategic challenge. They lose money by doing this because Microsoft Office is a $20 billion cash cow which is 90 percent profit margin.

"It's hard to voluntarily give that up. For Microsoft it's not a technology challenge, it's a business model challenge."
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