Are the days of loading huge office suites of programs on your computer nearly over?
The answer is a qualified yes for both home users and business users. So called “cloud computing” is coming to a home computer, network, and even a mobile device near you. The announcement that Microsoft Office 2010 will be web based should add fuel to a growing fire of use-anywhere applications.
The “cloud” is the metaphor for the internet and “cloud computing” is tech-speak for programs through a web browser instead of residing on your hard drive or a network. If you remember the old days when there were dumb terminals and mighty mainframe computers elsewhere – cloud computing is like that with one difference: The new crop of software will add functions, features and empower collaboration in a way that we’ve not yet seen.
Before you give Microsoft all the credit for creating an office in the cloud, there are companies with robust offerings available right now. ZOHO has developed from a marginal start-up to a power player with offerings that range from free word processor, wiki and spreadsheet products to pay-for services like CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS). Their offerings are available in 30 languages and are supported in mobile platforms and for all operating systems. Google docs is growing features rapidly and is expected to erupt later this year when Google reinvents e-mail and online collaboration with Google Wave.
Why is this happening now and will it work?
The backbone for these developments is the HTML5 web browser specification. The bottom line is that within 18 months, so much functionality will be tied to the web browser that you may forget you are using one. Firefox version 3.5 is the first to use some of the features that will extend how we interact with text, images and video. Since there are so few web sites coding their content to take advantage of these new features, we just have to wait a little longer in the year to see the difference. But they will come and all these suites will take advantage of many new features.
The second part will be harder for many people to adjust to: Collaboration. This is more of a behavioral change. Effective collaboration requires a move from the Orwellian “Knowledge is Power” to somewhere near “Sharing Knowledge Rocks.” Teams will be able to share virtually any type of document, spreadsheet, image, layout and even video and have several people working on them at the same time – and see each other’s changes. This calls for new skills sets that include diplomacy, situational management, and identifying skill sets in others that can be leveraged while sharing the credit/blame for the project.
Microsoft appears to be keeping a software option for Office 2010, but will leverage the collaborative web. Adding their Office Communicator product will enable you to see if someone else is online and have a conversation with them, or just instant message them.
How will businesses manage the security that comes with using their documents in a web browser?
That has been the big question, but Microsoft set the bar high: They will allow companies to host their web solution (Office Web Apps) on their own servers.
In an Information Week interview by Paul McDougall:
“‘All Office volume licensing customers will have the right to Web apps to run themselves on-premises,’ said Chris Capossela, senior VP for Microsoft’s Business unit, in an interview. ‘This is a really big distinction between Microsoft and our competition,’ said Capossela, in a reference to rival Google. The article continues that ‘Consumers will be able to access Office Web entirely for free through Microsoft’s Windows Live portal.’ ”
In other words, they are giving it away to licensed users. This becomes important because Google will now have to develop their upcoming Google Wave offering for business hosted solutions and make their Google Docs suite even more powerful. To be fair, “Wave” may drastically change the way we use e-mail, documents, blogs and video [Read my earlier take on Google Wave]. While Google may be content with the public and education markets, they may be looking into head-to-head competition for the office suite products. That type of competition could open the door for ZOHO or new players.
Watching these developments, the most important thing we can learn – and what our schools must teach – is collaboration skills. Google Wave will be out later this year. Microsoft Office 2010 is promised for next year, and other cloud computing options are available right now. The new crop of browsers will eventually open a door to mobile and desktop productivity and not mess up the formatting when shuttling between the two devices.
Finally, there’s a cloud that may not rain on our parade, but rather herald some badly needed innovation.