I’ve been with Microsoft’s Hotmail for so long I’ve almost forgotten what a spam-infested up-and-down yo-yo of a service it used to be. But it was a pioneer, the first time we realised you could have email without being tied to a PC client. Now everyone has a solid web-mail service, mostly over-branded engines from a major provider or else a self-assembly cookie-box that falls over with every new piece of malware.
Zoho Corp., an Indian company formally known as AdventNet Inc., is one of the new players to make a loud entrance into the market. Zoho Mail is part of an ambitious on-line office suite, rounding out word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs to replace desktop applications…
Zoho’s revenues in 2010 were reported as $40m/year with profits at $1m/month. CEO Sridhar Vembu employs 600 people in Chennai, India, and only eight in the front-office in Silicon Valley. With a small army of back-office workers and very few high-flying engineers among them, the revenue model was enough to solicit a takeover offer from Salesforce.com.
Zoho Mail is a free email service which comes without display advertising. According to Zoho executive Rodrigo Vaga: “Well, that’s a decision we made early on. We’re not in the ads business. Zoho products will not feature ads, not even in the free versions.” Zoho’s revenue model appears to be to subsidise the free personal version as a loss-leader to pick up paying business accounts, so you can understand some of the restrictions imposed (below).
In emphasising its corporate identity, Zoho is squarely aiming at professional users, pitching to replace in-house IT and mail support, hence some features in Zoho Mail for organizing mail, identifying key messages and contacts and sending templated replies.
Zoho Mail is a free email service, solidly built with good integration with instant messaging and some with other online office suites. The unlimited online storage is offset by imposing quotas for mail sent and received per day. Zoho can be configured to access mail from POP accounts, send and receive from a web interface using all your addresses. Your Zoho mailbox itself can be accessed using standard email clients and services over both POP and IMAP.
Whilst Zoho Mail can forward new messages to any email address, it would be much more useful to be able to set filters allowing forwarding certain messages, but this is pushing a free service. Filters can delete or file mail based on various criteria, and they can assign labels with color coding. Use this too heavily and the interface quickly begins to look like an explosion in a paint factory.
Zoho Mail does have a powerful search facility, although I haven’t enough mail in the box to vouch for the speed under load. The inability to save search criteria as folders shows Zoho’s limits compared to conventional desktop clients. Zoho Mail does not detect dates, for example and searching for mail by contact requires copying and pasting their exact address.
Open the Box
There’s nothing radically different about Zoho. It is a competent, straight-down-the-line web-mail client that most users familiar with current Outlook Hotmail will have little trouble navigating. Mail can be organised using folders and labels. Mail rules offer some automation. Threaded conversations can be read in context with a tree view. You also get Zoho Chat instant messaging and offers some integration with Zoho apps, their online office suite and with Google Docs for attachments. Zoho Mail does integrate email with the other Zoho applications, with a nod toward Google Docs. Sharing documents is easy, whereas annotation is limited
A stout spam filter keeps junk out of the inbox. It makes a reasonable stab at identifying spam, but it’s no Akizmet. You can teach it further spam recognition, though.
Zoho Mail will automatically archive old mail according to simple rules, if you enable it, to keep your folders clean.
There is a mail template facility which will let you clip email text for later re-use, but the ‘templates’, such as they are, cannot be used for ‘canned’ replies. It does have a send-delay timer on the Outbox, should you wish to reconsider your word and cancel sending a mail. If you become a heavy Zoho Mail user, you may find the keyboard shortcuts useful.
On to the limitations of the free account. This is not Gmail.
- there is a limit of 250 sent mails per day, over which your account is blocked. This is explained as an anti-spammer measure which is fine, but this is not disclosed when you sign up for an account
- there is also a 10mb size limit on attachments, over which… your account is blocked.
- send any more than 10 bounced emails per day… your account gets blocked.
- there is a limit to incoming mail, but it’s not clear what the criteria are
- the only way to get your account unblocked is to go to the Zoho forums and post that you were blocked. This is where most people discover the limits imposed. I tripped over an ‘accidental’ summary given by a support person:“For free (personal) users, we offer unlimited storage but it is bound by the per day usage quota and for Business users, the storage limit is based on the pricing model and the per day quota based on the usage pattern. Below mentioned details are per day quota for your account (free users).”
Incoming mail box size: 250MB/Day (Including Attachments).
Incoming count: No specific counts/Day.
Outgoing Mail box size: 300MB/Day (Including Attachments)
Outgoing count: 250 mail/Day.
Zoho Mail cannot access other IMAP accounts. You cannot save searches and there’s limited scope for folder rules to scan and automatically file mail by folder.
The interface strikes me as quite busy. With the hefty feature list, the button and menu count have crowded out simplicity in layout.
Zoho Mail may have very clean interface, but it also has many bugs lingering, including the auto refresh which is intermittently broken. It’s something of a throwback to have to hit manual refresh.
Is it ready for the enterprise? Clearly there are companies in India and the US prepared to jump onto Zoho’s raft, with more products than just mail. As long as CEO Vembu can keep a stable product in development, close enough to Googlemail’s coat-tails, Zoho is in with a chance. AJS
Zoho Mail’s website http://www.zoho.com/mail/