Big businesses have been quick to move IT to the cloud, but smaller firms have lagged behind. A shortage of appropriate offerings from cloud suppliers and the high cost of services have discouraged small businesses.
Now, companies are introducing cloud resources and tools for small businesses at the always-appropriate price of free.
What can you get for free? You can get started.
“The biggest benefit to some of the free tools is when you’re just getting started,” says Jerod Powell, founder of InfinIT Consulting, a small-business-technology advisor in San Jose, California. “An entrepreneur can leverage those services to get their company up and running and then migrate off them.”
Entrepreneurs can find fairly advanced functionality in some of the free cloud tools from software suppliers. The functionality ranges from project management and marketing to general business-productivity applications, such as word processing.
How can software developers offer their products for free? Some generate income by selling ads that are displayed to users working with the free software. Others provide limited functionality at no cost, in hopes of signing users to more robust pay-as-you-go plans.
Here are some of the players in the free cloud business-management-software services, and what they have to offer.
Apps On Cloud
This tool shop helps you store HR records, organize contacts, manage customers and track project status. Support customers with an online Help portal and collaborate with your team via cloud-stored documents.
Apps On Cloud gives users full functionality for free, but limits them to 200 megabytes of total data storage. The premium plan gives you up to 500 megabytes per user for a monthly $10 fee.
A collection of 40 apps covers project management, customer-relationship management, time sheets, inventory and more.
“Basically, if you are an entrepreneur starting a business or running a business with 150 to 200 employees or less, you should be able to use Apptivo for some or all of your business needs,” says Bastin Gerald, CEO of the California company Apptivo.
The provider makes its money two ways. First, customers who want more functionality or custom features can buy them. Second, it directs users to providers that sell e-mail marketing, Internet fax and similar services.
New York's Gramercy One offers just two free products—GoBook and GoPromote. The tools help small businesses such as repair shops and dance studios book services, manage customers and promote deals on company websites and social networks.
If you have the bucks and the need, you can upgrade to GoSuite's paid version that includes mobile-payment interfaces, employee management and inventory and vendor management.
Ottawa manufacturer LightMachinery developed an application to help it manage its industrial-laser and precision-optics business. In 2007, it expanded that in-house product into a cloud toolbox to help other businesses handle purchase orders, price quotes, work orders, contacts and more.
Officebooks is a free ad-supported beta version that will eventually be supplemented by a paid edition. “A fully functional ad-supported free version of OfficeBooks will remain an option for users,” says product manager Gregg Senechal.
This impressive set of gear resembles a cloud mash-up of Intuit’s Quicken financial-management software, Salesforce’s CRM product and the $5-a-month Google Apps lineup for messaging, documents and scheduling. However, SoHoOS is free.
It employs a model similar to Officebooks, generating income by sluicing non-paying users of its products to fee providers of faxing, e-mail marketing, conference calls.
Zoho has more than two dozen online applications, including CRM, invoicing, messaging, project management, web conferencing and a suite of document-management apps. Features split the difference between Google’s streamlined free cloud offerings and Microsoft’s venerable pay-only Office on-premises product.
Zoho is free for up to a gigabyte of storage and charges $3 per user per month after that.
Cloud-based small-business tools are in their infancy and it’s difficult to say where they might be in a year or two, says Gramercy One founder and CEO Josh McCarter. Gramercy’s own offering is evolving rapidly.
“We recently launched the ability for business to integrate scheduling and gift-card sales directly into Facebook and support specials integration with Twitter and Foursquare,” McCarter says.
There’s clearly much free business-management gear available through the cloud. But consultant Powell notes that much more has yet to be available in free cloud editions. So, most businesses still need to keep one foot in the cloud, and one on the ground.
“Depending your business size and what you’re doing,” Powell advises, “there needs to be a mix of on-premises and cloud solutions.”
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