For many people a computer is all but invisible (until it stops working). It’s something they use every day to complete mundane but essential tasks attached to running a business; invoicing, spread sheets, email and maybe some basic research if they can filter out the noise that’s returned in the average web search. This is especially true if you come from the same generation as I do; digital-migrants. We weren’t born with a silver mouse wired up to our umbilical-cord. We had to learn things the hard way when the desktop computer really was a temperamental beast, little understood and to be feared and revered. I remember the first terminal I used in an office – it had a black screen with green text and ran on an undecipherable platform called UNIX that was only talked about in hushed voices by serious-looking huddles of network-engineers.
But now computers and smartphones are more powerful and easier to use than ever before. The processor running your average smartphone packs more digital punch than the ones used to put man on the moon. Around 2.5 billion people are connected to the Internet and that figure is set to explode as mobile Internet takes over. Ten years ago there were just 700 million mobile devices; today there are already nearly 5 billion, and some manufacturers predict that figure will rise to a jaw-dropping 50 billion by 2020; that’s one heck of a lot of ways to connect and only a fool would still be clinging to the notion that the Internet isn’t relevant to their business.
Because of this accessibility there is an ever-expanding population who are choosing to work completely ‘in the cloud’.
But what is the cloud?
In this context by ‘cloud’ I broadly just mean ‘the Internet’. This simplification is no doubt going to rankle some network specialists as they have pretty much hijacked the term ‘cloud computing’ over the past decade, applying it to ‘enterprise platforms’ and special closed networks built and maintained to serve a private companies.
But I like the term ‘cloud’. It’s fluffy and warm and easy to picture and I am claiming it back for the people.
The dictionary definition of cloud computing is:
n: a model of computer use in which services stored on the Internet are provided to users on a temporary basis
By that definition the Internet itself is the ‘mother’ of all clouds.
So someone who is ‘working in the cloud’ is accessing documents, files and information, through services and applications hosted somewhere on the Internet rather than saved on the computer sitting under their desk. Things stored ‘in the cloud’ are accessible through an Internet browser, or maybe a dedicated application you can download to your mobile or desktop device. This means you can set up office pretty much anywhere you can find an Internet connection, which makes for a very flexible business model.
I get asked a lot about cloud security – and of course there are risks. The same as there are risks crossing the road to get to the newsagent in the morning. You need to be smart about the products and services you trust with sensitive data – make sure they employ good security. You wouldn’t go out for the day and leave your front door keys with a stranger who was passing by on the street would you? So don’t leave your data lying around on unsecured servers run by companies you know nothing about. Read reviews; ask questions in discussions groups and forums; ask your peers and social connections for recommendations. If you see a company you like a quick Google search will normally turn up any red flags as there will be plenty of people posting negative feedback and complaints online if they aren’t living up to their promises.
To free, or not to free?
While I am a big believer in things being free online, or at the very least offered with a free trial or cut-down features, when it comes to secure data services you are better off looking for a good, well-established provider that charges a reasonable fee and is investing that money into maintaining up-to-date secure technology. ‘Free’ is all very well, but you’re not a customer if you’re not paying for anything, which means your satisfaction is never going to be the number one priority for the service provider.
The other question I get asked a lot is “what if the cloud service goes down?” It’s true, servers can crash and if you’re based solely in the cloud this could interrupt your workflow. It’s also possible that your computer could crash. You might spill a cup of tea on it or have a power-outage or fire in your neighbourhood. Stuff happens. At least if you data is stored in the cloud you can recover from localised problems by heading off to your nearest Internet cafe or WiFi-friendly coffee shop.
When it comes to connection speed I’m afraid it’s not as clear cut. Some people still live in areas with poor connectivity – in which case the cloud is not going to be ideal (though to be fair they are unlikely to be reading this article!). Likewise if you deal constantly with huge files like high-resolution images and video you will spend a lot of time uploading and downloading from the Internet – so not ideal when it comes to storing and working with material every day. But you don’t need to go 100% cloud to start feeling the benefits. Just using a cloud email provider like Gmail or Outlook will make it easier to send and receive emails on the go. Cloud task managers like the ones featured in my recent opinion piece about time-wasters will give you control over a project from start to finish taking all of the pain out of the paperwork. And even if you just store a few essential word documents and presentations somewhere like Dropbox or Google Dive, you need never be left red-faced and under-prepared at a meeting again.
Failing that you could just use the Internet to explore and download the countless array of amazing business tools and resources that can be saved on your own hard drive for use when you’re offline (of which there are plenty on my book, Working the Cloud as well!).