2011 was the year that most small businesses discovered ‘The Cloud’.

Because there’s still a fair amount of fuzziness (technical term) around what ‘The Cloud’ is, here’s a brief explanation. In essence, working in the cloud means using the Internet to access tools we use for day-to-day business tasks.

You might think that’s old hat – after all, people have had Hotmail email accounts for years.

But in business terms, the benefits go much further and are spelled out with some clarity:

1)      As with Hotmail, you can access your stuff from anywhere

2)      And from the cloud, you can use these services on different platforms: your PC, laptops and tablets, or apps on your phone

3)      You don’t need to install new software: applications are accessed through a browser

4)      Data storage is getting cheaper by the day. Store your stuff cheaply, or even free

5)      Someone else worries about security, backups and all that other technical stuff.

Indeed, the word ‘cloud’ came to symbolise this online data management precisely because you didn’t need to know (or bother with) any of the swirling mist of stuff which happens there. Rather like my microwave oven, I know that clever things are going on to make it work, but I don’t need to get my hands dirty. Computing and data storage have become an off-the-shelf commodities - and with low prices and minimum techie knowledge required, small businesses are the main beneficiaries.

So, where’s the catch?

There is no doubt that the cloud is redefining the way businesses use computers.  At some stage soon, then, we will all throw off our shackles and walk into the blindingly white future of cloud, with smiles on our faces and perhaps an ethereal choir ringing in our ears. I’ve seen ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Right?

Well, sort of.

There are companies which see the cloud with this sort of unalloyed joy, and there’s no doubt that most services will be cloud based in the future. But not all. At Microsoft, we’re committed to cloud technologies, but we’re also committed to choice.

There are occasionally reasons why companies may choose not to use cloud services:

  • Some niche software applications simply aren’t built for the cloud, and may never be
  • Some companies feel safer with key types of information locked away physically – even though there’s a cast-iron guarantee of data security, they don’t want the infinitesimal risk of information going astray
  • Sometimes, when old records are still on paper, for example, you might as well have newer electronic data in the same room.

I’m sure you can think of more reasons – it all comes down to personal preference and the circumstances of your business.

Furthermore, operationally, the transition to cloud computing needs to be a smooth process. Here’s a good parallel example. At some stage in your business or personal life, you might have changed email addresses or used a new piece of email software. I bet it was a miserable experience. You were worried that you might lose old emails, or things might not work out properly and you’d lose important messages.

 Smart businesses want to avoid these hassles by ensuring that any transition to the cloud is not a case of switching off one service and switching on another, but rather a case of having the best of both worlds at all times.

Best of breed, best of both

We think that convenience and simplicity are what matters for a business, and rather than using technology in whatever way is right for your IT provider, you should be able to use it in whatever way is right for you and your business.

For example, if you have Office installed on your PC, check out Office Web Apps – which allows you to view and edit your documents with perfect fidelity through a browser or on your phone. Web Apps don’t replace Office 2010, they are a cloud-based augmentation of some Office programs, providing a different access and usage option.

Then there’s SkyDrive, the simple and free online storage space, which allows you to keep and share documents at will. It’s endlessly useful – but it doesn’t need to completely replace any local storage on your network.

Or for the most complete introduction to cloud services, try Office 365 which includes Office Web Apps along with enterprise-grade email (Exchange Online), video-conferencing, screen-sharing and Instant Messaging (Lync Online) and complete and secure collaboration (SharePoint Online). All for as little as £4.00 per month – that’s a large cappuccino. Yet all of these services integrate perfectly with the local, PC-based versions of Microsoft products which you may already have in your office. Quite simply, if you check out Exchange Online for email, it will give you seamless access to your email from anywhere and on any device, but it won’t gobble up your old emails or make you change the way you work.

The cloud is already making life for small businesses easier, more productive, and financially both economical and predictable. It is allowing managers to spend less time on technology and more time on cash-generative work. And it is empowering smaller companies to compete with much larger competitors. But cloud doesn’t mean all or nothing – it means you choose whatever works for your business.

And if you want to try it first and see how it works, why not sign up for a free 30-day trial of Office 365? It's quick and easy, and you'll be surprised at what you can do - like build your website for example.