I have – occasionally – been accused of having my head in the clouds. It’s the kind of thing that gets said to people who appear to have little connection with reality (i.e. they “don’t have their feet on the ground”). I won’t deny that I happily give my imagination free rein, but my sense of reality is very … um … real.
There has been a lot of talk about cloud computing. The Cloud consists of servers parked in a variety of places around the world, which host both the documents/files we work on, and the software that we use. It’s a concept that runs completely counter to the basic computing principles that have made Bill Gates as rich as he is. No longer do you need Microsoft Office on your computer, and depending upon the device you’re using, you may not even be running Windows.
Google is not only the world’s dominant search engine, but with its Gmail and Google Docs offerings it is also a prime example of cloud computing. The pain we bear for using Gmail is that Google displays ads relevant to the content of our emails. Fair enough, it is a ‘free’ service.
Google Docs comes without this baggage. You can create and edit a variety of file types online, and then you can share them with other people (with, or without, editing rights), which makes it a lot more efficient than emailing multiple versions of the same source documents around the world, with various recipients making changes along the way. In Google Docs, one version of the document sits in a central place, so edits are visible to everyone in real time.
Google Apps is all this on steroids, because you can run your entire business in the Google cloud. And, you can add a huge variety of complementary apps.
The beauty is that you don’t need to maintain a file server, or a VPN, or buy any software, but it is a problem when your internet connection goes down. Fortunately, this generally doesn’t happen for more than a few hours per month. Google is by no means the only ‘cloud’ service available, but its sheer size makes one feel a lot more secure about not having in-office control over one’s data (which is sometimes a problem in its own right).
One of the most important tools that a company needs is a CRM (customer relationship manager). The feature I most love about a CRM (other than the contact information) is the linking of emails to particular contacts (or projects, even). I’m not a great filer, so it suits me when this gets done automatically. For companies that run sales teams it’s also really useful to know what the pipeline looks like, in terms of opportunities and closed sales.
Insightly CRM is available as a free app in Google Apps (paid versions only kick in for larger contact databases, but these are cheaper than SalesForce, SugarCRM and others). I’ve been test-driving it and have been very impressed.
You still read your emails through Gmail, but there’s a little button you can click if you want the mail to be stored in all the relevant spots in Insightly. And, when sending email you bcc a designated address, which then stores outgoing mails in the correct spots.
Insightly also creates contacts and organisations automatically when emails are received. What blew me away was the way it intuitively creates organisations. It takes the name of the organisation from the email domain (the @organisation.com bit), which does need a little editing. Then, it takes a logo from the email footer and links the logo to the organisation. The last bit is quite spectacular; Insightly goes to the website of www.organisation.com and grabs the meta description (an extra bit of hidden information that makes the website more search engine friendly, by describing the company) and inserts that into a field, called background.
One shortcoming is that you can’t seem to link calendar events to contacts, so you have to use Google Calendar as a standalone service (however, Tasks are ported across by Insightly). And, while it is possible to initiate a reply to a stored email, the reply email won’t have the existing email conversation (i.e. it starts blank). However, it does usefully have that special bcc address automatically included. And, if you click on an email address while in Insightly the same thing happens.
I’m also busy test-driving a $190 Android tablet that I bought online (report to follow), which makes use of all the ‘cloud’ features above. This makes the cost of equipping the staff in a small business a lot more manageable – you don’t need software, or an office network, or a file server, and you can do a lot of your work on a device that is very affordable.
It’s worth getting your head around ‘the cloud’. It’s not pie in the sky, I can assure you.