Zoho Mail: A Flexible (But Imperfect) New Take on Webmail

By  |  Friday, October 10, 2008 at 7:00 pm

For a long time, Zoho has been the most ambitious provider of Web apps around when it came to the sheer variety of services it offered–from a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool to stuff for invoicing, HR functions, and project management. Bu there’s one app that’s so obvious that I somehow hadn’t noticed that the company didn’t offer it–and that was e-mail.

As of today, it does. Zoho Mail is live, and while the world wasn’t in desparate need of another browser-based e-mail service, it does have a few notable features. And in particular, it seems to be designed to be a Gmail alternative that’s in some ways more flexible:

–Gmail displays all messages in a threaded “conversation” view; Zoho Mail has something similar, but it’s optional. (The default inbox view is in a more typical reverse-chronological order.)

–Gmail replaces standard folders with labels; labels are okay, but–for me, at least–folders are an easier way to quickly weed messages out of the inbox for later reference. Zoho Mail has both labels and folders.

–Google invented a technology called Gears that lets Web-based apps work in an offline mode when no Internet connection is available. The company is said to be working on a Gears-enabled version of Gmail, but it isn’t available, nearly 18 months after Gears’ arrival. Zoho has beat Google to the punch: Zoho Mail uses Gears to work in offline mode. (Which is apparently a Zoho tradion: Its Zoho Writer word processor leveraged Gears before Google Docs did.)

Zoho Mail’s interface is pretty standard–it looks a bit like a hybrid of Google Mail and Outlook:

And it has a bunch of standard features, too, including every basic tool you’d expect, such as an address book and the ability to bring in multiple external e-mail accounts. Like Yahoo Mail, Zoho says that it offers unlimited storage.

As with many other Zoho services before it, Zoho Mail in its debut form is both impressive and a bit rough around the edges. I love the idea of providing Gmail-like conversations and labels without mandating them. I’m still not a huge fan of conversation view, but I find Zoho Mail’s take on it more manageable than Google’s–it shows a threaded view of all the messages in a conversation up top, with a preview below:

I did find some quirks in the Zoho Mail interface–or, more specifically, features that struck me as quirky. For one thing, you can’t choose conversation view as the default–you need to click on a little word balloon next to a message to see all the messages in a thread. (Zoho says it’ll let you make it the standard view with an update.)

You can choose for messages to open up in a preview pane or in a new browser window by default, but if you want one to open up in a new tab–which is what I usually prefer–you need to remember to right-click it and choose that option. And clicking on a sender’s name doesn’t open the message; instead, it filters your view to show only messages from that person. Kind of clever; also hard to remember if you’re used to the way other e-mail apps do things. I also thought I’d be able to drag messages into folders a la Outlook or Yahoo Mail, but there’s no drag and drop at all in Zoho.

I haven’t done a real test of Zoho Mail’s anti-spam, but in my brief experience, it was overly aggressive–it falsely accused a lot of Facebook status messages of being junk–and there’s no way to tweak it to be more lenient. And you can use other Zoho applications to view file attachments such as Word and Excel documents, but you can only view them, not edit them. (Zoho says it’s working to add editing capability.)

Oh, and I don’t see any real online help for Zoho Mail, other than a link to a user forum. It’s got a lot of features, and some of them could stand some explanation.

As for the offline mode, it works–you can read and compose messages when you’re disconnected. You get to choose how many messages are available in this mode:

As with every offline version of an online service I’ve tried, Zoho Mail’s offline mode doesn’t give you all the full-blown features of its online edition. In fact, it’s fairly rudimentary: Your address book isn’t available, and the conversation view word balloons are still there, but don’t work. I’m hoping that Zoho will enable more and more functionality in offline mode, but it’s clearly a challenge to make Webmail work at all without the Web, and Zoho got there before most folks. But nowhere near rich enough to eliminate the need for desktop e-mail apps like Outlook, Thunderbird, or Apple’s iCal.

One last plus: Zoho Mail, like Gmail, has an iPhone version that does a nice job of squeezing the interface down into mobile form. Here are some screens I stole from the Zoho blog post on Zoho Mail:

Overall, Zoho Mail is classic Zoho–mostly well done but not perfect, and here today with features that larger companies will get around to implementing later. If it continues to be classic Zoho, the company will improve it over time with more features and a more polished interface. I’m not going to use Zoho Mail as my principal Webmail right now, but I’ll certainly continue to check in on its progress…

Be the first to comment


Comments are closed.