According to a recent Pew survery, 71% of technology leaders believe that in 2020 most people will access “software applications online and share and access information through the use of remote server networks”, rather than depending primarily on their individual, personal computers. They say that “cloud computing will become more dominant than the desktop in the next decade. In other words, most users will perform most computing and communicating activities through connections to servers operated by outside firms”.  Therefore understanding cloud computing is a must for everyone, particularly development professionals who will have to tackle cloud related strategic, implementation and design challenges in their projects.

However for development professionals to really understand the intricacies of cloud computing, they need to “get in the cloud” and use it for their day to day computing. In this blog, I will demonstrate how personal computing can be done purely through the cloud using publicly available (mostly free) cloud based services.  World Bank staff, for example use edesktop, which is a private cloud based suite of services that allows travelers and staff working from home to use the same versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SAP, BW and Lotus Notes that they would use from an office computer or laptop.  However while the services that I describe below do not have all the bells and whistles that typical enterprise products do, they are not proprietary and they all have a free version you can use:

1. Office Suites: Google Docs is the most popular cloud based office suite, offering documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms. Let’s be upfront: Google Docs comes nowhere near offering the kind of functionality that Microsoft Word and Excel offer.  However it is useful for development professionals and others to keep up to date with their documents when they are travelling or for editing Word Documents.  Another well regarded cloud based office suites is Zoho, which offers Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentation and Database services, among others.  Zoho potentially has some advantages over Google Docs in terms of more options for formatting and layout, while Google Docs is better for multi-user collaboration.  The Zoho interface is more intuitive and if you are familiar with Microsoft office, the look and feel of Zoho will seem familiar.  However the stability of the platform is arguably less than that of Google.  No one wants to put all their documents on the cloud, only to discover that the company that owned it went out of business.  We’ll have to see if Zoho can last.

2. File management: File Management on the public cloud is helpful if you are not able to access the shared drives of the organization you work for, and if the documents are not sensitive.  Using a file management cloud-based service will allow you to save your files and access them, regardless of where you go, as long as you have access to the Internet, whether you are using a computer or a smartphone.  Dropbox and SugarSync are two good file management services. Dropbox is quite popular because of its features and the fact that it is cross-platform; with a a desktop client for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.  Here is a good article on the differences between these two. Apple iCloud will be released this Fall, and is worthwhile keeping an eye on.

3. Graphics: Cacoo and Chartgo.  Cacoo is a cloud-based, collaborative, diagramming service that allows you to make pretty complex charts entirely on the Web.  Illustrations thus created can be saved on the site, and embedded on web pages. TechCrunch has a good review of Cacoo. Chartgo is a simple, no frills charting service that allows you to create a graph online quickly. You can create bar graphs, line graphs or pie charts, using existing graphs as needed.

4. Surveys: SurveyMonkey is an easy-to-use cloud-based survey tool, where you can collect data via a link, email, Facebook, and embed on a blog, all with live results. SurveyMonkey allows users 10 questions per survey, with 100 responses per survey in the free version.  The basic version with unlimited questions and unlimited responses is $17 a month.  To get access to analytics, however, you have to upgrade your plan.

5. Web pages: Google Sites is the simplest way to create web pages.  They are not fancy, so are not suitable if you are looking for the works, but would work better for “good enough” sites that you would use for recording your work and sharing with others.  If you are looking for more sophisticated cloud based blog services, WordPress is probably the best out there, however there are other alternatives as well.  Google Pages are free as of now.

* While Google Docs does not have a specific app for iPhones, you can use it on any browser or Android phones, however with limited functionality. The Zoho app allows more functionality in editing Google Docs documents

Most of these services are not as reliable and robust as their proprietary counterparts. However they offer a couple of useful and compelling advantages.  They can be accessed from anywhere and whenever you want, as long as you have an Internet connection.  They also helped development professional understand first hand, the pros and cons of using the cloud. In my next blog, I will talk about some innovative ways of using the cloud.

Web 2.0 for Development Professionals Part 2: Innovative Uses of Existing Cloud Services

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