Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Cloud Apps for Microbusinesses

I've spoken at a couple of networking meetings recently about how small businesses can use Cloud software to make dramatic improvements in the way they manage their information. My rather stretched analogy is: "The difference between a diamond and a lump of coal is just a matter of arrangement".

The idea is that if you think of your business information like carbon atoms, which arrangement would you prefer? The right software can help you manage your business information better, and Cloud software puts some extremely powerful functionality into the hands of very small businesses. So here's a quick, non-exhaustive introduction to a few tools you might find useful.

But first...

What is The Cloud

Diagrams of computer networks always used a cloud shape to represent the internet. As web and internet based systems started to develop, marketers wanted a good term to describe the new paradigm. So was born a marketing buzzword...

The Cloud is a way of delivering computing where you connect remotely to an online service. In the 70s, computers were massive mainframes, accessed with a 'dumb terminal' which stored nothing and did no processing, it just sent and received data. During the 80s and 90s, things moved towards PCs on the desktop, which run programs and store data. Since the likes of Hotmail launched in the late 90s, move has been back to dumb terminals, i.e. web browsers where all the data is stored remotely.

Benefits of Cloud

  • easy to access and use, from anywhere across different devices
  • easy to collaborate with remote colleagues
  • backup and business continuity built in
  • pay for what you use, as you use it, OpEx not CapEx (some services are free)
  • data security


  • if you have no internet, you have a problem, although this can be mitigated with backup internet connections (such as a wireless dongle or mobile phone), and with apps which make their data available offline
  • be careful with security - consider location of data (especially in regulated industries), who might have access to your data

Examples of Cloud applications for business

The following tools are ones I've either used personally or have been recommended to me. They are particularly suited to 'microbusinesses' and many are available free or at minimal cost.
  • IMAP email, which your hosting provider will supply, which allows you to synchronise your email program on your computer or mobile with a server, meaning that messages that you read on your PC also appear as read on your phone
  • GMail - the contacts module will sync with mobile devices and your desktop email program (Outlook, Thunderbird, MacMail etc)
  • Google Calendar - syncs with mobile devices and desktop email, and you can share calendars with co-workers, associates, family members etc
  • Google Docs / Google Drive - great for working collaboratively on documents, spreadsheets and presentations
  • Dropbox - file synchronisation between computers and website, allows you to share documents with others quickly and easily
  • Microsoft LiveDrive - similar service to Dropbox and Google Drive
  • ToodleDo - great web-based to do list with notebook, based on Getting Things Done methodology. Syncs with mobile devices
  • EverNote - advanced web/desktop/mobile notebook app
  • Feng Office - web based project management and collaboration application
  • Xero and AccountsPortal - web based, easy to use accountancy software
  • Nuvola CRM - watch this space!
  • Skype - great for collaboration but also can be used to provide a business landline phone number

What to do next

  • Think about what information you have in your business that is disorganised
  • How could you organise that information better?
  • What sort of tools would you need to help you do it?
  • Check out the above tools and services, some of them will almost certainly help you
  • Read my book (which is aimed at business people, not techies) for more information.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Thoughts from TechTalks 4

This week, I went along to the fourth TechTalks event, hosted in Bristol by SpiderGroup, a local cloud solutions company. The event combines business networking with talks on how changes in technology are affecting the way we live and do business, and are well worth going along to even if you aren't technical.

Two of the speakers presented very contrasting views on the impact technology is having on society. Javier Marti (@javiermarti) focused on the ability of technology to allow us to share information anywhere with anyone and to access and analyse massive amounts of data. This, he argued, makes the world a more free and open place - this is also the view of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and one I agree with.

Vipul Patel (@socialspaice) meanwhile concentrated on the demands that technology is placing on the planet's resources. He pointed out that each kilogram of tech product produces 8.5kg of (mostly toxic) waste, that 5 million people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a war over control of valuable minerals essential to the tech industry (not to mention the use of rape as a weapon of war), that we use 35% more resources each year than the planet can actually provide. This is with only half our population having access to the latest gadgets!

Both of these presenters were right, and it was fascinating that none of the questions at the end were directed to Vipul Patel, but mostly to the (also fascinating) talk given on the story of Xero by MD Gary Turner (@garyturner). Is this because the audience didn't want to address the uncomfortable issues Vipul raised?

Certainly, our consumer-driven society has led to technology manufacturers adopting a two year (or less) product lifespan, and we are driven to be constantly upgrading to the latest and best version of everything. Part of the blame must lie with our own behaviour, but when mobile phones begin to break down after 18 months and our providers offer us a free upgrade is it any wonder we don't think about where those raw materials have come from?

Like Javier Marti, I am passionate about the benefits that technology can bring to society. But we need to find a way of bringing about those benefits without increasing harm to the planet, and while using technology as a lever to decrease inequality, not increase it.

Where do we start? Perhaps by forcing manufacturers to design products that last, maybe by requiring 3 or 5 year warranties on tech goods, or preventing mobile phone companies subsidising handset sales. Let's face it, most of us want the latest phone, camera, computer, MP3 player or whatever and with the best will in the world behaviour isn't going to change overnight, so maybe this is where legislation can help.

Anyway, gotta go, need to call my mobile operator about an upgrade...