Blog: microsoft

Doing Real Business in the Cloud

Clouds and wing viewed from an aircraft windowYou’ve undoubtedly heard tech geeks (like yours truly) wax enthusiastically about the virtues of “the cloud” or, more specifically, “cloud computing.” Part legitimate game-changer and part meaningless abstraction, the concept of doing things “in the cloud” may mean little more to you than another impressive-looking IBM commercial that interrupts the otherwise endless stream of beer ads during a football game. The internet, that thing that we variously call a distraction engine, mankind’s savior, or a series of tubes, is abstract enough to begin with. Why do we need fuzzy metaphors to render it even more nebulous?

The thing is, the concept of cloud computing does have an underlying meaning that might be useful if anyone outside the insular world of nerds and geeks actually understood it. At its most elemental level, the cloud is just a place other than your computer where computer-y things happen – processing, storing files, serving up videos. That’s nothing new; remote computing – or, taking the load off the computer you’re sitting in front of and moving it somewhere else – has been around nearly since the dawn of computing, since mainframes wouldn’t exactly fit under your desk.

Most of what we do on the internet is sent to us from elsewhere, which is sort of the point of this whole internet thing – connectedness. You don’t want 100 million YouTube videos on your hard drive (trust me on this one). So when people talk about “cloud computing,” it can be especially confusing because, really, most of what you see in your web browser or email program is living somewhere else. (True nerds will scoff at my lack of distinction between regular infrastructure and cloud infrastructure; go back to Reddit and quiet down.) So, the next time one of your customers corners you on the fairway and asks if you’re using the cloud for your business, what the heck should you say?

I’m here to help. I’m going to spend the next few posts discussing practical uses of the cloud for every single business owner. We’ll get past the most obvious manifestation of working in the cloud – document sharing (yes, it’s great) – and talk about how to use the cloud for things that really matter, like closing sales and securing your data. In fact, this month I’m going to dive straight in to the sometimes-prickly subject of presentations. That’s right – let’s talk about Powerpoints.

Slide Into It

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with slide presentations – if you’ve ever sat through a bad one, it’s tempting to blame the format itself for the boredom, anger, slumber or outright nausea that it caused. Mostly, though, a poor presentation is the fault of the speaker or the person that created it. The format itself is a succinct, visual method for communicating ideas (or reinforcing spoken concepts) that is still in wide use for one primary reason: It works.

I’m not going to tell you how to create good presentations (although, in my experience, using on-screen explosions can work wonders), but it’s important to remember that, in one way, a presentation is like a camera – the best one is the one you have with you. If your sales presentations are stuck on a desktop computer and you’re on your laptop, or they’re stuck on laptop and you’ve only got your tablet, they’re not going to do you much good. And, if you just ate a particularly incredible pastrami sandwich and were struck with (before the heartburn) the three remaining key benefits you need to elucidate in order to close the Henderson deal this afternoon, how awesome would it be to add those directly from your smartphone or tablet that you’ve got with you? Put down the mustard and let’s talk.

The Players

Keeping your presentations in the cloud has many of the same benefits as sharing any document in the cloud – you can have other users access or edit them, you can get to them wherever you have internet access, and you’ll always have the latest version. But cloud presentation software can also eliminate the need for, well, software itself. The folks at Microsoft hate to hear this, but (in addition to other passable, open-source alternatives to Office itself), Google gives away a pretty darn good presentation creation tool as part of its own Google Docs offerings. The whole thing lives in the cloud – the application is presented in your web browser, and the document storage (you can store word processor docs and spreadsheets as well) live on something now called Google Drive, which is probably what most people think of when they hear “cloud” – a big hard drive in the sky.

With Google’s presentations, you can build, edit and present your killer, deal-closing slide deck on your computer, your tablet, or even your smartphone. Change a few lines over lunch on your tablet and those changes will be right there when you load it up on your laptop in the conference room. When inspiration hits, you’ll be able to act on it immediately. (Of course, I’m assuming you have internet access – if you don’t have internet access for all your devices, cloud computing is by definition not for you.)

Google’s suite is great, but it’s very Google-centric, and not everyone has hopped on that bandwagon (that said, if you’re on Android, it’s probably a no-brainer). But, let’s say you’re a Microsoft fan and want to stick with Redmond’s products. They’ve got a similar set of tools, including SkyDrive (for document storage) and a product called Office 365 that offers cloud-based Office apps for a monthly fee.

Macintosh, iPhone and iPad lovers have a simple, built-in way to create and share presentations with iCloud. Apple offers a basic level of iCloud storage for free, and Apple’s presentation app, Keynote, is a Powerpoint-killer in almost every way. Simple, slick and packed with features, Keynote is available as a download for every Apple device. When you save your Keynote presentations to iCloud, they’re available instantly, everywhere you have internet access, without any web browsers, software or other configuration required. For the road warrior who just doesn’t want to hassle with technology, iCloud and Keynote may be the ultimate presentation machine. Give someone a Keynote presentation on your iPad and you’ll see their eyes light up. It’s that good.

Finally, if you want a presentation tool that works with absolutely every platform and shows no preference for one over the other, it’s hard to beat DropBox. DropBox offers a basic storage plan for free, and has apps for every major platform. The power of DropBox is in its simplicity – it’s just a drive on your computer or an app on your tablet or smartphone. Save your Powerpoint or PDF to your DropBox, and you can pull it up instantly on your other devices.

Dropbox doesn’t do presentations on its own, but since it can view most documents, it works great in a pinch when you’ve got to show someone something and you don’t have the ideal device with you. You can view your Powerpoints, yes, but you can also keep product images, price lists and all sorts of other selling information on your Dropbox for easy answers to customer questions. The data will always be current, synchronized, and at your fingertips. It’s free and works with just about anything. It might become your best sales presentation partner. What are you waiting for?

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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Thoughts on the Microsoft-Skype Deal

Microsoft and Skype, sitting in a treeThis morning, Microsoft announced that it is acquiring Skype for the princely sum of $8.5 billion. Skype is undoubtedly the most successful consumer phone and video conferencing provider worldwide, but that’s an awful lot of billions for a company that likely didn’t even break one billion in revenue last year. What’s up with the big money, and why Microsoft?

First, Microsoft is in deal-making mode this year. The Windows-Office goldmine that they’ve sat astride for so many years may be sustainable for many more, but it isn’t likely to provide enough long-term growth to please investors. Office and Windows have precious little purchase in the most rapidly growing technology sector, mobile. Redmond is watching market share being eaten away from below by Google’s free alternatives and from above with Apple’s tablets, phones and laptops.

Even worse, Microsoft no longer seems to be an innovator in a broad sense. Standouts like the XBOX (and the brilliant Kinect) and a pretty slick Windows Phone 7 OS are anomalies in a corporation that has largely stagnated, happy to rest on a massively profitable software and licensing revenue stream.

So, why not look outside? The first big move by Microsoft was the Nokia alliance, announced in February of this year. In that case, both companies desperately needed a sea change in mobile strategy, and Nokia had consistently failed to deliver a high-quality smartphone OS. Putting Windows Phone on Nokia devices made good sense for both companies – Microsoft pushes a fledgling operating system out to a much larger audience, and Nokia acquires a slick smartphone UI and access to a broader range of traditional computing services than they were capable of building in house. As a bonus, a strong third player mixing things up in the iOS-Android arena benefits all of us. Healthy competition accelerates innovation.

The Skype purchase isn’t immediately obvious as a victory for both parties. Skype has a large established user base, but Skype’s technology isn’t anything particularly innovative or special. Apple, Microsoft and many others have delivered reliable, high-quality audio and video communication products at the consumer level, and big vendors like Cisco and Siemens dominate conferencing and “unified communications” at the corporate level.

So, what, exactly, is it that Microsoft is getting out of this deal? First, a brand and a subscriber/user base. Skype is the most recognized consumer brand in the world for this type of communication product, so the value of the brand itself is important to Microsoft (whether Microsoft plans to preserve that brand permanently is unknown at this point). Skype also has over half a billion users worldwide by some counts, so Microsoft gains access to that user base. Who knows exactly what they’ll do with it.

Second, Microsoft will integrate Skype into a number of existing and future platforms. Expect tight integration with Microsoft’s XBOX Live service and Kinect – quick videoconferencing from your living room with any Skype user worldwide will be a strong selling point for having the XBOX dominate your living room technology. Also, Skype will likely be positioned directly against Apple’s FaceTime as the video chat application for Windows Phone smartphones of all stripes.

Where else? Skype could be integrated directly with Bing – remember that all of Google’s services sprang from nothing more than search engine market share, and Microsoft is very serious about stealing search market share from Google any way they can. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft largely abandoned (or at least stopped promoting) the “Office Live” brand and services to consumers and bundled more consumer-friendly free services like Bing and Skype all together under a single consumer brand or package. Microsoft can no longer leverage everything off the Office/Windows brands. They need compelling services (like XBOX Live) that stand on their own.

Of course, implementation and delivery of all this goodness will be the real challenge. eBay was unable to integrate Skype technology (and, perhaps more importantly, Skype culture) into its services or company, so there could be underlying issues that might make the acquisition and integration difficult. And Microsoft is dropping a ton of scratch on this deal, so expectations are going to be very high. If they don’t generate something pretty special out of the acquisition, a lot of investors and analysts are going to be disappointed. If Microsoft cannot innovate its way to solid growth, and it can’t acquire its way there either, expect a lot of doomsaying over the next few years.