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On Cloud Nine: New Productivity Tools Level the Playing Field for Small Business

What do e-mail, the telephone and the smartphone have in common? They’ve spread like wildfire. Why? Because each was an innovation that made sense for small businesses.

Today, cloud-based productivity suites are the latest entry on the list.

As robust as their onsite cousins, cloud productivity suites by Microsoft, IBM and Adobe take the most heavily leveraged technology tools — whether word processing, messaging or photo editing — and make them significantly more affordable and effective, driving rapid adoption.

What’s Under the Hood?

Essentially, cloud productivity suites are familiar applications that have moved to a new delivery format. Just like a site-based solution, the tools within the suites allow you to edit documents, manage contacts or create a marketing brochure.

But cloud-based solutions offer numerous innovations. The most evident advance is subscription-based pricing. Instead of requiring sizeable up-front investments, cloud suites offer a variety of relatively modest pay-as-you-go options.

Another distinction is browser-based access to most suite tools for availability anytime, anywhere, on any device. Some suites even follow hybrid models which permit both cloud and onsite deployments as well as downloading tools on an as-needed basis.

The ability to sample technologies across vendors also sets cloud suites apart. Since barriers to entry are minimal, small businesses can test-drive solutions by different manufacturers — or even new solutions offered by a single vendor — to determine the best fit for their workers. In addition, some solutions are designed to encourage interoperability across manufacturers.

Affordable Enterprise Collaboration

For many small businesses, the most important attribute of cloud suites is their robust internal and external collaboration features. These tools reduce geographic barriers, whether users are located on different floors of a building or on two different continents.

“As information has become the new currency, the ability of small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) to survive in an increasingly competitive and global environment is largely determined by their use of advanced technologies such as cloud computing,” says IBM’s Andy Monshaw, general manager of IBM Midmarket Business.

Such tools permit businesses “of all sizes to work seamlessly with people inside and outside the firewall, across time zones and geographies. It’s providing organizations with the opportunity to deepen customer relationships, optimize daily workflow, strengthen operational controls and increase product and service innovation.”

Efficiencies and Benefits Add Up

In return for moving users to the cloud, suite manufacturers take on maintenance and administrative burdens related to keeping applications updated, patched and secure. This drives IT-related costs down.

Upgrades to the latest features occur seamlessly within the manufacturer’s cloud environment, which typically meet the strictest domestic and international security standards. In this way, a cloud suite improves a small business’s ability to serve global markets, regardless of their customers’ local compliance mandates.

Still, businesses retain management control over their suite deployments. Usually, this occurs via an intuitive administration console. These consoles streamline tasks, such as adding users, assigning privileges and setting up team areas.

Not surprisingly, the cumulative rewards from adopting cloud suites are considerable.

For example, some users of the Office 365 suite are saving 25 to 30 percent on IT-related costs, according to Microsoft. Other users are reducing operational expenses with the use of automated proposal processing, saving more than an hour every day.

And according to IBM, payoffs come quickly, with some businesses achieving ROI within the first month after deployment.

Three Suites at Your Service

  • Microsoft Office 365: Introduced in June 2011, Office 365 not only provides the most familiar and widely used business applications, such as Word, Excel and Outlook, but also puts into the hands of small businesses more sophisticated tools. These include Lync for audio, video and web conferencing, as well as the SharePoint collaboration environment.

    “We know SMBs depend on our productivity solutions but often are running these applications in silos,” says Cindy Bates, vice president of Microsoft’s U.S. SMB Organization.

    Office 365, she adds, “is an always-up-to-date cloud service that combines SharePoint, Exchange, Lync, and Office Professional Plus — powerful programs that many SMBs have felt they couldn’t afford . . . until now.”

    Depending upon the pricing plan selected, Office 365 is either completely browser-based, with Web Apps versions of each component, or a hybrid model that permits downloading full versions of the platform’s components for local use.

  • IBM SmartCloud Engage Advanced: Launched in 2009 and rebranded earlier this year, this offering is part of a larger platform called IBM SmartCloud for Social Business. Engineered to give small businesses the flexibility to adopt the components that fit best, other platform components and extensions may be added on-demand.

    SmartCloud Engage Advanced is an enterprise-class social collaboration and e-mail environment. It provides multiple forms of messaging, calendaring and scheduling; community; project and contact management; file storage and sharing; web meetings; and more.

    “Instead of multiple phone calls, e-mails or site visits, SMBs and their partners use SmartCloud Engage Advanced to meet and work together online,” says IBM’s Rebecca Buisan. “They resolve issues, share documents, network and track projects to completion all in one place online. Also, with secure sharing and file version controls built in, it addresses one of the biggest pain points for many SMBs.”

    Built on an open platform, IBM’s browser-based SmartCloud for Social Business is designed to help integrate new cloud-based solutions from IBM, as well as commonly used applications from IBM business partners. Using the included Social Business Toolkit, SMBs can even integrate SmartCloud quickly and seamlessly with on-premises applications.

  • Adobe Creative Cloud: Coming on the scene in May 2012, Creative Cloud offers all of Adobe’s award-winning design tools as a digital hub, including the new Creative Suite 6. Users download specific components or the entire suite, as needed, to their computer. Adobe uses this model to take advantage of local computing power.

    Creative Cloud subscriptions with various terms include 20GB of cloud storage space, with device syncing for smooth access to files via desktop or tablet. To keep applications current, users connect to the Internet at least once every 30 days.

    With Creative Cloud, users receive the latest features, products and services as soon as they’re available rather than waiting for 12, 18 or 24 months for the release cycle for the latest innovations. And Creative Cloud includes services that tie the new publishing workflows together.

Jul 26 2012