Cloudy Forecast

One thing that always impressed me about the first credit manager I really worked closely with was his use of technology. Not to live up to a stereotype, but this credit manager was from an “older generation” which you would not immediately associate with being tech-savvy.

We all know the significant impact that technology has had on the workplace, but it is expensive. What can new or very small companies do to take advantage of technology but not break the bank. One option is to use free services available “in the cloud”.

Cloud computing means you are using someone else’s server to either run applications, store your data, or both. Sometimes it is free (Facebook), sometimes it isn’t (LinkedIn Plus).

While there are a lot of online services we could talk about, this article will focus on Microsoft’s Windows Live. This is the rebranded Hotmail email service which now includes “web applications” (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote), and 7 GBs of online storage (you can buy more) called “SkyDrive”. If you are a Google person, it is very similar to Google Docs.

The benefit with Windows Live is that it uses the ubiquitous MS Office programs noted above plus an integrated calendar which, in the web versions, is reasonably consistent with the desktop versions you may be used to.

If you are a small business, you can set up a general account for your business and accounts for your employees. From the general account, you can then share documents with the employees and assign them different viewing or editing rights. You can share files with your blog site, Facebook and other social media sites (not Twitter, though).  If you can’t stand Microsoft, then you can do very similar stuff with Google’s gmail service.

The main benefit is that the new or small company does not have to buy MS Office and the licenses for its employees, which can be a large cost for businesses just starting out. For non-profit organizations, this is a way to inexpensively share files and information with people who may not all have the same software on their home computers, since the MS Office applications run from the Cloud, and not from the person’s own computer.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Despite Microsoft’s behemoth size, Windows Live is a bit clunky (which could be due to the software, or to the power of the user’s computer and the quality of the Internet connection). On some cloud services, the cloud provider actually “owns” the content. That typically means they will mine the content for key words to help market more effectively to you.

In addition, the applications do not easily support “complicated documents”…meaning if you have tables or embedded charts or Excel tables in your Word documents, for instance, you will have trouble editing them online. The good news is that it the applications and the service are always improving.

Windows Live’s anti-spam and other features also make it harder to use the system for the business as it grows. You can only add so many email accounts per day, and you can only send to so many email addresses at once. In addition, though you are creating a “company email” for each employee, Windows Live is essentially meant for an individual, and once that account is setup, the user can change their password and continue to use the account long after they have quit the company (though you can stop sharing files with that account, you can’t stop the employee from using the account if they want to).

If you are an employee who does not have access to MS Office (or Office-like) applications, setting up a personal Windows Live account will give you access to these applications, which you may want to use for your work if work is not providing access to that technology.

Whether you are a new or small business, a technology starved employee or just a user that is looking for more than just a personal email service, Windows Live is a great service, and free to boot!

For a white paper from KPMG on cloud computing (a much more involved discussion of the issue), click HERE.

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