Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Part 8 - Free and Cheap Software for the SOHO Office

Pro and Con: Cloud applications vs. Installed applications

So far, in our discussions of office software we have discussed programs that you download to your computer (or, in a few cases, to your USB memory stick) and install. However, unless you've been living under a very large rock for the last five years (or haven't had internet access, which is about the same thing), you've heard about online software that exists "in the cloud" rather than on your computer. So, which is better for you?

Before we answer that, we should address: What exactly IS the cloud? Although the term suggests visions of an ethereal, heavenly all-encompassing internet, the cloud is simply a large computer with lots of internet connection capability. You can argue that it's not one computer but many, networked together, but it's basically the same. When you want to run some software, your browser connects to that server, and gives you the interface to do work. 

You can save your work on that computer, download it, or share it with others in a variety of ways. (This is not a new concept. Before desktop PCs became ubiquitous, most companies had servers and employees used “dumb terminals” to connect to the server and run applications. The Cloud is the same thing except the servers are off-site and the interfaces are much better.  Plus that terminal might even be a wireless phone, now, with much more computing power than that dumb terminal.)

What browsers work well for these services? Well, these days, almost all of them. Microsoft's Internet Explorer, is still the most popular browser, since it comes with nearly every installation of Windows, but Microsoft has been losing ground, particularly to the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and Google's Chrome (all for Windows and Macs and sometimes Linux). Safari specializes in the Macintosh. Opera is designed for speed, and is fun, but doesn't have as many features, and there are many others. All of them are free.

If you are comparison shopping, another factor is the existence of a large library of plug-ins or extensions. When I joined Google+ last summer, there were many more extensions to deal with G+ in Chrome (which was natural, since Chrome is another Google product). So I switched from Firefox to Chrome. Now, I'm toying with the idea of going back to Firefox (but I'm NOT leaving Google+).

Whichever browser you use, make sure you update to the latest version of that browser!!! It will have the latest features in security protection, the best speed, advanced HTML capability and other fancy internet tools. Using that three-year-old Internet Explorer on Aunt Lizzie's computer could leave you open to viruses and other malware attacks, and it's slower and some sites may simply not work with it. Note that the newest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer only works with systems going back to Vista. If you still use XP (or Aunt Lizzie is still using Windows 98 on her ancient, coal-fired Dell), you should switch to one of the other browsers.

So, why go online for your software? Here are some advantages:
    1. You can access your work from any computer that has a browser and internet access,
    2. Cross-platform usability (Generally, it doesn't matter if you use a Mac or PC or Linux computer as long as the browser is compatible.),
    3. Free or low cost use,
    4. Collaborators can easily work together on the same document, often at the same time,
    5. Ease-of-Use: User interfaces are often cleaner (but with fewer features than some desktop software),
    6. Easier sharing with colleagues, customers, users, and the public,
    7. Fast, no-cost, no-fuss updates: bug fixes and new features are easier to implement online, you don't need to install them,
    8. Tools now allow easier sharing between online and desktop applications,
    9. Many applications now have smart phone and tablet access and can coordinate with social media services,
    10. Many services (Google and Zoho, in particular) have enterprise tools which allow entire corporations, schools, even governments to work online.
Although  Google was not the first to offer Cloud (or Software as a Service - SaaS) applications, it has probably done more to popularize it than any other.

There are many online services that only offer one or two primary online products like SalesForce, or Evernote, or Slideshare, or specialty niche applications, like fundraising or email publishing.  Others, such as Google and Zoho, offer a wide range of products and most of them are free for individual users, too!

With online apps you can mix and match applications, tools and interfaces. For example, you might compose a report on Zoho Writer and add a SlideShare presentation, make a customized Google Map, and have the files available to business colleagues with SharePoint or a wiki. You can report on it using Google's Blogger or your free Microsoft small business website. You create your To Do list on Remember the Milk, which sends reminders via email to your Apple or Android phone, and use Tungle to check your work team's calendars to set up a web conference on Zoho Meetings. You can link to all of these with plug-in tools on your iGoogle homepage and your Firefox browser.The creative challenge is not just learning the tools, but learning how to combine them together to get work (or your job search) done effectively.

There are a few dark linings to the silver light of cloud computing you need to consider before going online for all your software needs:
  1. You must have internet access to get to your work. (Some services have downloadable versions of some of their software to allow you to work offline and then update your online files.)
  2. Telecommuters and freelancers, especially, need an emergency plan in case your home internet access goes down (such as using a public library, bookstore, coffee shop, or a friend's home).
  3. For travelers, airport and hotel Wi-Fi access or Mi-Fi routers could be expensive.
  4. Security needs to be considered, especially if you work with with proprietary, financial, legal, medical or personal information.
  5. Some free online services are supported by advertising, which might be mildly annoying.
  6. Different file formats may create some translation problems when going back and forth between different programs. You need to learn details about which programs have what features.
  7. Technophobes and people who do not like change will not be comfortable online. There are lots of online resources for learning, though.
  8. Just as on your desktop computer, you should backup your online files in case of disaster. Yes, cloud apps do automatic backups, but what happens if the company you use goes out of business and pulls the plug? It's rare, and that's not likely to happen to the more popular sites, like Google, but it could happen to some smaller ones.
  9. If you deal with creative and intellectual property, be sure to check who has access to it on some services (especially video, sound and photo sharing sites). Read the user agreement to make sure you maintain ownership once you upload it to that service.
Many services offer free access to individuals or small groups of people -- making them excellent value for job hunters, consultants, freelancers, some telecommuters, collaborators, and very small businesses. When your needs grow, you usually can pay by the month (with an option for annual discounts) per user. Some databases, however, have a tiered structure depending on the number of records. Some services, such as Evernote, offer their services for free as long as you upload under 1GB of data per month or need advanced services.

Adding services is usually quite easy. If they are paid services, you do need to keep track of the costs because all those monthly costs can build up if you use a wide variety of services. Freelancers who may need to use certain services to work with each employer need to check those costs carefully when figuring out what to charge their clients.

If you are new to online office applications, the best places to begin to look are Google Apps and Zoho.com.

Microsoft also has some very good online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These can be excellent for collaborating online or for after hours work from your home computer, even if you don't own those applications. But the online feature set is a bit more restricted and Microsoft generally assumes you also have an installed version to work on, somewhere.

We will look specifically at Google and Zoho applications next in this series.

Tags: Cloud, SAAS, apps, Google, Zoho, Microsoft