The news in 2009 was dominated by the gloomy economy, as small business entrepreneurs hunkered down to weather the downturn. Looking forward to 2010, it won’t rain money, but there are still some glimmers of a recovery. Not surprisingly, the technology trends shaping up center around getting the biggest bang for your IT buck and quantifying the return-on-investment for your marketing dollars.
Cloud Computing Goes Main Street
So-called “cloud computing,” where online services take the place of traditional desktop- or server-resident software, was a buzzword in 2009, and the din will only get louder this year.
Even if you’ve been following cloud computing since it was called SaaS (software-as-a-service) or, showing your age, ASP (application service providers), if you’re like most small business owners you still haven’t taken the plunge. But according to research by Microsoft and others, that’s likely to change.
“We feel interest and adoption of cloud computing among small and midsize businesses will really take off in 2010,” says Christoph Wilfert, corporate vice president and general manager for Microsoft’s small and mid-market business solutions in the U.S. “Our research and conversations with SMBs show they are very interested in cloud computing, but are not yet fully aware how easy it is to employ the technology, its widespread availability and full benefits.”
Wilfert notes that the cost benefits of cloud computing are too good to ignore. For example, Microsoft Online Services provide enterprise-grade e-mail communications, Web videoconferencing, CRM and collaboration solutions to as few as five employees through a monthly contract that costs less than an average cell phone bill.
Helping drive the awareness of cloud capabilities will be high-profile product launches due this year, such as Microsoft Office 2010. “Office 2010 will blend the traditionally installed version of Office with cloud computing features,” says Wilfert. He reports that the suite’s Office Web Apps will offer lightweight online versions of Word, OneNote, Excel and PowerPoint accessible via a Web browser; these features will be available through Office 2010 to small and midsize business owners at low cost or for free.
The major applications in Microsoft Office 2010 will have online counterparts, bringing cloud computing to the mainstream.
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“Office Web Apps will extend the Office experience on the Web and to mobile devices,” said Wilfert. “Simply put, were there is a browser, there is Office. We’ve also stretched our offerings to include Web-based applications to complement Office 2010 and to give SMBs the ability to work remotely at an affordable price.”
Microsoft’s Wilfert isn’t the only company bullish on cloud services for 2010. Steve Cakebread, a cloud-computing evangelist and a former president and chief strategy officer of SaaS pioneer Salesforce.com, thinks that small businesses especially could benefit from the trend. “Business of all sizes should consider using cloud solutions,” he says. “However, for small businesses it can be even more effective, because you gain access to world-class solutions but only have to pay for the solution as you need it.”
Opting for an online service rather than on-site software can also help a small businesses’ cash flow, notes Cakebread. “It’s a subscription, so you can buy annual services and pay quarterly or annually versus typical computer solutions where you have to pay in advance.”
Of course, if your Internet service gets interrupted, so, too, does access to any software applications you use via the Web, and the service provider itself could experience a problem, making your applications and data inaccessible. But Cakebread thinks this is less of an issue than the press reports make it out to be.
“You will experience service outages — it is technology, after all — but if you select world-class providers your service issues are typically less than you have in your in house operations,” he said. “Think of cloud providers like your electrical service or phone service: They do have service issues on occasion, but most respected suppliers have minimum interruptions.”
Before making the move to an online service, however, business owners need to know what to expect. “With so much hype surrounding “the cloud,” it makes sense to set expectations,” notes Rob Walters, director of product management at The Planet, Inc., the world’s largest privately held dedicated-hosting provider.
“For example, the utility-billing model is not always cheaper in the long run. If flexibility is your goal, then great. But if cost-savings is the goal, that’s not a given with an online service.”
If you’re moving business functions to an online provider, Walters advises that you start with something that’s not mission-critical, such as e-mail, which is a service most online providers should have down pat. Another ideal choice is backup/disaster recovery.
“Moving disaster recovery to the cloud makes it affordable for more businesses, since you don’t have to pay to replicate all your hardware,” Walters explains. “There are also plenty of services you can subscribe to — such as CRM — that also let you do away with the server-management aspect of software, as well.”