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Microsoft and Google Fight in the Cloud

Microsoft’s announcement that the latest version of its productivity suite, Office 2010, will have an online component should have been a vote of confidence in the cloud. Currently in Beta, the newest version of Word will allow for co-authoring, and the ability to edit papers “and share ideas with others at the same time.” Users will also be able to “view the availability” of people who are working on the document with them, and “easily initiate a conversation without leaving Word.” No less eyecatching is the ability to access and share documents from “virtually anywhere” by posting them online and opening them in almost any computer or Windows phone using a Microsoft Word Web app or Word Mobile 2010. The suite should be a must-have for just about any modern freelancer working with clients scattered around the globe. In practice though, while Microsoft Office might remain an essential tool, the new version is unlikely to be helped by its new attachment to the cloud.

Microsoft’s move is intended to counter advances by Google, which increasingly sees itself as a competitor to Bill Gates’s firm. The search giant might not have its own PC-based operating system (yet) but both companies have mobile operating systems and Google’s free online office suite, Google Docs, is an indication that it sees the future in terms of Internet-based services rather than computer-based software.

Users Spend Five Minutes on Google Docs

A late 2009 survey by IDC, a research firm, suggests they might be onto something. While just under 20 percent of corporate respondents said that they currently use Google Docs, more than 27 percent expected to be using it “widely” in the following year. How widely they use it though may turn out to be crucial. An earlier survey by Compete found that Google Docs and its Excel-like service, Spreadsheets, had 4.4 million users in 2008. That’s only a fraction of the number of people using Microsoft Office, and a look at how those people are using the online service is even more worrying for Google. According to Compete, only 58 percent of those visitors actually used one of Google’s productivity services, with the remainder stalling at the home page. Worse, those that did use it only stopped by just three days each month — and then for only about five minutes a time.

By contrast, not only does just about everyone have Office on their PCs, they actually use it.

Where Google may be able to achieve some penetration is among a few tech-savvy companies looking to save money on multiple Office licenses. The need to protect those revenues is likely to have been what prompted Microsoft to put its services online in the first place, including a free lite version of Word.

But savings of thousands of dollars aren’t going to be available to freelancers. They might be able to put aside a few hundred bucks by swapping Microsoft for Google, or even OpenOffice, but when Office is their main professional tool, that’s not the place to start looking to make savings. It’s not that freelancers like paying $99 for a stripped down version of Office (or $399 for the full version). It’s that they don’t think it’s an unreasonable amount to pay for a standard professional tool that they’re going to be using every day. If it saves them the hassle of repeatedly explaining to a client why they can’t open the latest format of a Word document without losing all of the formatting then it’s worth the extra money. Nor is it just professional document-makers who are willing to lay out the cash for professional standard software. Paint.net is as free as Google Docs, and Photoshop has an online version, and yet Adobe has little trouble selling its main image suite for around $700.

Freelancers Want Their Work to Hand

One of the reasons for that preference for Microsoft Office over Google Docs is the very nature of cloud computing itself: the idea that everything is on the Internet and nothing needs to be stored on the hard drive. It’s a concept that’s heavy on efficiency and light on an understanding of the way that people actually use their computers. Companies like Google, with vast banks of servers, might be able to put their faith in storage rooms that they never see. Freelancers who have ongoing projects like to know that their work is no further away than their fingertips.

That’s especially true if they can access their work at any time. Cloud computing might be safer and offer all sorts of multi-access advantages that working with Microsoft and a hard drive can’t provide, but when your ability to access the documents a client is waiting for depends on the reliability of your Internet service provider, it’s no surprise that freelancers choose to safeguard their work themselves. Large businesses can have large back-ups and plenty of insurance; freelancers need to deliver the assets they’ve been creating if their business is going to have revenue. Google’s announcement in May that it was phasing out offline support for Google Docs would hardly have won the confidence of freelancers.

None of this though has stopped some aspects of freelance work doing well on the Web. Hunting for clients through services like Elance and RentaCoder make job searching easy, but apart from portfolios, these services store little on servers that belong to the freelancer. oDesk’s attempts to turn a virtual workplace into a real cubicle, complete with snooping boss and time-punching, show how little some companies understand about freelancers and their motivations.

If anything could shift a preference for personal responsibility towards trust in a cloud, it’s the rise of mobile devices. As tablets and smartphones become better at allowing document and spreadsheet editing, freelancers may find themselves looking to access their work not just in more than one place but also on more than one device. That’s the opportunity that Microsoft is hoping its new suite will benefit from. It’s more likely though that Google will be kept in its place, and freelancers will be doing a lot of wireless syncing.

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