Boots on the Ground – Cloud Computing Gets Real

We are at an historic inflection point, insists Sean Poulley, VP of Cloud Services at IBM. It’s is happening right before our eyes: the shift away from desktop computing. The move into cloud-based computing is in full swing. That, added Poulley, is an unexpected reversal of the great business computing revolution of the early 1980s.

Back then, the beginning of the client/server revolution, it was heard big business won’t move off mainframe computing; it has too much invested so why would it switch to desktop computers? And yet it did and in the process, of course, created a massive market opportunity that Microsoft pounced on. Now it is Microsoft’s turn.

The reason: money. Businesses are protesting the high cost associated with desktop computing. “[C]ompanies are fed up paying $100 to $200 per seat to use Microsoft Office,” said Poulley. There are other benefits to using cloud-based productivity apps (more on that in a minute) but the immediate push away from Office is a desire a to minimize, maybe eliminate, costs associated with desktop apps, said Wade Beavers, CEO of DoApp, a developer of mobile apps that happens to be standardized on Google Docs. “It lets us cut costs … ,” said Beavers.

Small businesses are already ducking Microsoft’s fees by embracing cloud alternatives and bigger companies are beginning to follow. “Larger enterprises are considering deploying, or threatening to deploy, such alternatives to reduce the growth of Microsoft premise-based software licensing and support costs,” said Michsel Dortch, director of research advisory firm Focus.

Right now, nobody counts Microsoft’s nascent and clumsy cloud-based version of Office as a player but, in the same breath, there’s loud protesting against the idea that Google already has locked down this market. Beavers, for instance, said that Zoho, with perhaps a decade of providing cloud-based productivity apps, is making waves. “Zoho is definitely pushing Google.”

Even Microsoft could get back into the cloud with a next version of its cloud tools. It can’t be counted out, say the experts.

Rumors persist that Oracle is developing a cloud-based version of OpenOffice, the free office productivity suite it acquired in the Sun merger. Of course, there also is IBM’s Lotus Symphony, another free, open source tool, presently still running on desktops but there, too, new plug-ins are enabling it to operate in the cloud. Suddenly, for the first time in a generation there is fresh interest in creating new office productivity apps.

“People are [not] used to the idea they have other options than Microsoft Office,” said IT project manager Steven Savage. “This has made them more willing to experiment.”

And then there are the other reasons why Microsoft’s hegemony is fracturing. Vatsal Sonecha, a VP at TriCipher, a company involved in helping businesses roll out secure clouds, points out that “Microsoft Office is ‘so 1990′. What people want now is flexibility. It’s a paradigm shift, where people want access to their information from multiple devices.”

When a worker had one screen, licensing productivity software to one computer made sense. But when the worker has three or more screens — a desktop at work, a laptop at home, maybe a tablet for commuting, and a smartphone — suddenly the old order shatters and a new one has to emerge, said Sonecha.

Another reason the dominance of Office is ending is “[c]ollaboration happens better in the cloud,” said Purnima Padmanabhan, VP of products at MokaFive,a virtual desktop management start-up. With multiple workers in different places working on the same documents, cloud is where this unquestionably happens best.

But Padmanabhan draws a cautionary line in the proverbial sand when she warns that shrewd as it might be to move some productivity apps like word processing into the cloud other tools might be better served staying exactly where they are.

“PowerPoint just works better on a desktop,” she said and her explanation is that between the many keystrokes involved in a good show and the many supporting files (perhaps images, sounds, movies) a shift into the cloud simply is cumbersome and a lot more trouble than it may be worth. Right there, the new shape of office productivity software may be coming into a clearer focus, with some but not necessarily all apps going into the cloud.

The time to think about this is now say most experts. As businesses struggle to control IT costs, today’s low hanging fruit has emerged as productivity software — especially with perfectly adequate tools available in the cloud at much less cost.

“Productivity at IBM did not grind to as halt when we stopped paying for Microsoft Office licenses,” said Poulley.

As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1500 articles for many of the nation’s leading publications―from Reader’s Digest to Playboy and from the NY Times to Harvard Business Review. McGarvey covers CEOs, business, high tech, human resources, real estate, and the energy sector. A particular specialty is advertorial sections for many top outlets including the New York Times, Crain’s New York, and Fortune Magazine.