Your Office in the Clouds

There’s a lot of talk lately about “cloud computing“. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to applications that are accessible on the web as opposed to being installed on your hard drive. For example, many people now have email accounts with Google‘s Gmail. All the user’s emails are stored on a Google server, not on their personal computer. Where once upon a time you would have clicked on the “Outlook” shortcut on your desktop to initiate the email program installed on your hard drive, now all you have to do is open your favorite browser and point it toward Google.

The primary advantage to cloud computing is accessibility. You can access your Gmail account from any computer or smart-phone with a browser anywhere in the world. The primary disadvantage is that your data is stored on someone else’s server. Should their server crash or that company go out of business, your data may no longer be accessible. A related disadvantage is the inability of the user to know for sure how secure their personal data is.

For those reasons most computer and security experts advise not relying on the cloud for personal and/or confidential data storage just yet. Whatever you store online should have a local backup. Thankfully most of the major players in the cloud computing arena offer local backups without too much effort.

Local backups will become an even larger issue once Microsoft releases Office 2010. Much of it will reside in the cloud. This means MS Office will share some of the same advantages and disadvantages as other office applications that are web-based.

Perhaps the most often mentioned alternative to MS Office online is Google Docs.

If you have a Gmail account you also have a Google Docs account. Open Gmail and look at the upper left corner menu. Click on Documents.

Google Docs
Google Docs offers nearly the same interface and functionality as Microsoft’s Office suite. You can use Google Docs for word processing, developing a spreadsheet, designing forms or creating presentations. There may not be perfect integration between the formatting in Google Docs and Microsoft Office, but there are helper applications like OffiSync that brings integration closer to reality.

For many the most productive aspect to Google Docs is the ability to collaborate with others. You can choose which documents to share and with whom you share them.

There are security concerns being voiced about Google Docs. Should one company be trusted with both your email and your documents? Will the contents of what they store for you be sold to advertisers? At present there are no sure answers to these concerns. Each user will have to decide for themselves if the risks outweigh the benefits.

Another online alternative to Office is Zoho Docs. Zoho offers collaboration and file sharing and has three levels of service. A free account gives you 1GB of storage, $3 a month per user increases that to 5GB and to get 15GB of storage you’ll pay $9 a month, which covers 3 users. Those appear to be reasonable prices for the ability to not only access but store your documents, spreadsheets and presentations online and share them with others in your office or on your team. Since Microsoft has yet to reveal the pricing for Office 2010 we can’t say whether Zoho’s prices are competitive or not just yet.

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