Your Small Business Office in the Cloud

By Helen Bradley

Working at Home

Online office applications make great sense in just about every way from cost to flexibility and accessibility. There are plenty of good online small business software applications to choose from and, while they may not pack the punch of a full-fledged office suite, they offer everything that most businesses need most of the time.

In this roundup, I'll explain why cloud-based office suites make such good sense, what you lose by not using one, and which suites offer the best options.

The Benefits of Online Office Apps

Online office applications are part of an entire range of SaaS (Software as a Service) applications that let you work online anytime -- provided you have a browser and an Internet connection. They're great for everyday work and for working on the go. It doesn't matter what platform you're using -- Mac Linux or Windows -- the application works just the same. You can work with documents on a Mac at work and Windows at home, and you won't notice any difference.

Online small business software tools typically make it easy for you to share documents with other people and to work collaboratively. You can give other people access to either read the documents or to both read and edit them. You can even work on a document at the same time as someone else.

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Product Summary
Sponsored: Google Apps is a cloud-based productivity suite that helps teams connect and collaborate from anywhere on any device.
Microsoft's Office 365 adds secure, anywhere access to the Office suite, enabling teams to communicate and collaborate.
Zoho Office for SharePoint has multi-user concurrent editing capabilities that enable several users to open the same document at the same time.
ThinkFree Office is a MS Office-compatible productivity suite for creating word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and graphic presentations.
LibreOffice is a free, libre and open source personal productivity suite featuring six document-production and data-processing applications.

Other aspects of online applications include giving you the capability to give a presentation online so that people in remote locations can view it in real time.

 You can also use them to embed presentations and spreadsheets in a Web page or blog. In the article Quick and Easy Surveys with Google Docs, I show how you can use Google's form tool to create an online survey for your website or blog.

The best of the online applications are free and give you generous amounts of online storage. You don't have to shell out extra dollars for offline software unless you see a benefit to doing so.

GoogleDocs; small business software
Google Docs offers a word processor, presentation software and the spreadsheet, shown here.
(Click for larger image)

Online office applications aren't limited to being used on a desktop or laptop and most offer companion tools for Windows Mobile enabled handheld devices, the Android and iPhone. This means you have access to your files at least to view them anytime provided you have a compatible device.

If making backups isn't your strong point then online office applications make good sense because someone else takes care of backing up your data and storing it securely. They also take care of upgrades so you'll always be working with the most up to date version of the software.

The Downside of Online Office Apps

Of course, the news isn't all 100 percent wonderful. If you're on a slow Internet connection then working online will be slow too, and you may find that online applications lack the advanced tools that you're used to using in offline applications.

The companies that provide online office apps also provide security, storage and backups for your documents. Typically, that security is much better than an SMB could ever provide for itself, and it can be a real advantage.

However, it also means that your documents are on a computer that you don't control; you're reliant on others to maintain the service and operate it securely. This lack of direct control over your documents may preclude you from using online applications for sensitive work.

If the online service goes down, you'll have no choice but to wait until it comes back up again. In addition, if the organization providing the service goes out of business then you'll need to move your documents elsewhere -- for this reason, it pays to choose a reputable company with a successful business history.

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This article was originally published on June 30, 2011
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