Office Automation Online – The Network is Finally the Computer

Recently I had the annoying problem of a failed laptop battery. Computer worked fine, but as a road warrior, without a strong battery the laptop was of little use. Because I needed to hit the road again the next morning, I had the option of living without a laptop, buying a laptop, or finding some alternative.

A frenzied trip to the local big-box computer store, a look at the price of acceptable laptops, momentary depression, and suddenly a revelation. While wandering around the computer aisle I stumbled upon a row of NetBooks. A variety of vendors, including HP, Dell, Toshiba, and ASUS.

In the past I have scoffed at the idea of buying a NetBook, thinking it was only useful as a tool for sales people to send email messages. As a power-user bigot, anything other than the most powerful computer was nothing but a passing amusement. I mean really, how is it possible to run those complex and cool programs us operations and engineering people need to run every day while on the road?

Well, not every day. Well maybe not even that frequently while on the road. OK, to be honest I use my laptop for presentations, word processing, mail, and remote access to hosted company applications that are generally web-enabled.

So I bought an ASUS NetBook. I couldn’t go cold turkey, and wanted the hard drive and potential to run local applications such as MS Office. Some NetBooks have very limited storage (~16GBytes) and available applications, however all share a common characteristic – low price.

While setting up and customizing the computer I saw a directory containing links to a variety of Microsoft Live Office, Mail, and communication utilities. Just for the heck of it, I decided to try Microsoft Live Mail, which I assumed would simply be another utility update for Hotmail. Now, the shock began…

Configuring all of my POP3 mail accounts took about 5 minutes, and that was only because I had to look up the server names. Configuring Live Mail was almost the same as configuring a local Outlook or Outlook Express mail client. More and more curious, I decided to give Live Office a whirl, even though I did receive a copy of Office loaded on the NetBook.

It works. It extends my local computer into a virtual workspace that functions almost identically the same as any other Office application, with a very positive user experience. My NetBook will be my companion on most short business trips from now on, as I can do anything with this one pound small portable computer than I can do with my powerful HP high end laptop.

Oh yes, and NetBooks weigh about a pound and fit nicely into any carry on briefcase or bag. The NetBook is only slightly larger than a standard novel.

The Trend is Clear to Me – Virtual Computing is Near

Many businesses are looking for alternatives to hosting their own basic IT infrastructure. Both Google and Microsoft are competing for the corporate IT outsourcing market. Google has deployed their Google Apps, providing a rich suite of applications such as mail, documents (spreadsheets, word processing, presentations, etc.), and collaboration tools.

Microsoft is nearing the end of their Live Office BETA period, announcing that an online version of Microsoft Office 2010 will be available for free to web users. While retaining a desktop or computer-based edition of Office 2010, users will be able to integrate their local office applications with the online version, allowing users to extend their desktop to any computer that is Internet-enabled with a standard web browser. The online version is not operating system dependent, allowing use of Office Web from MS Windows, LINUX, or Mac systems.

Throw in a few more net-enabled applications such as Groove, Google Moderator, WebEx, and other interactive collaboration tools, and we are ready to work.

Why Use an Online Version?

The answer is becoming clear. Small and medium companies simply cannot afford the expense of operating internal data centers for basic IT applications and office automation. If a business can outsource the application, then they are also not responsible for staying on top of security patches, program patches and upgrades, and the maintenance of underlying hardware. All the company needs to do is have Internet-enabled workstations and portable computers.

The cost per user can be much lower, and you are relieved of operating burdens.

Online Software as a Service In the Clouds

When you use a Live Office application, Google Apps service, or any other outsourced application, you have no real idea of where that application physically resides. Setting aside physical security concerns for the time being (we’ll cover that in a follow on article), the only major concerns when using an outsourced office application is that it is available when you want it, and the application’s performance is acceptable.

Applications such as Gmail and Live Office exist in clouds. In fact, the physical location of the service you use, such as Gmail, may even change from day-to-day or evenly more frequently based on availability of processing, storage, and network resources.

John Gage’s Vision – The Network is the Computer

John Gage, a scientist and early employee of Sun Microsystems first spoke words “the network is the computer” in the 1990s(Wikipedia). It took us about 15 years, but the network is now providing intelligence through Internet-connected applications. Sun, Microsoft, SalesForce.Com, and other companies offering network-enabled software as a service are rapidly maturing their products, and the business community is taking notice.

With my NetBook in hand, upon return from my current business trip I will head for the beach or nearby coffee shop, set up my office at a table with the best view, put on headphones and MP3 player, and indulge in the future of connected business.


John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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