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For the foreseeable future, the small to medium business will remain the cornerstone of the global economy. Traditionally, the knowledge worker takes center stage within this business segment. Surrounding the knowledge worker are tools that are used regularly to accomplish a wide variety of goals and tasks.

A short list of these primary tools includes e-mail, a productivity suite, back-end file storage, desktop operating system and an Internet browser. Secondary tools probably include a CRM or ERP solution, but discussion of these is outside context of this conversation.

The point is, this primary tier of computing power was usually derived from tools that resided inside the firewall or within the organization. In other words, they were offline as opposed to living in the cloud. During the past year an explosion of online applications and capabilities targeting the knowledge worker has taken place. Let's examine what these new tools are, where they came from, what they offer and why you should seriously consider adopting them.

The stable of online tools is chock full of applications targeting smaller enterprises, the knowledge worker and the powerful personal computer. Don't agree? Check out Zoho and their robust list of available knowledge worker empowerment tools for starters. After perusing Zoho, take a peek at Google's gaggle of tools and applications. Realistically, between the two there are more than enough tools and applications to manage not only your personal day but that of your business persona as well. But before we go down that path we should start at the beginning.

The incumbent productivity suite is Microsoft Office, but the market is beginning to shift to Office alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org and online versions with similar capabilities. Driving the trend to online apps is the reduction of price of pervasive broadband technologies as well as their footprint. Additionally, the method in which organizations view information technology is shifting. This shift is primarily focused at a tighter alignment between technology and a business issue. In other words, talk to me about how a particular technology can mitigate my business challenge instead of how great this technology is and how I can find a use for it. That said, here are some of the driving business issues:

  • Reduction of cost
  • Resource availability regardless of location
  • Ease of management

The litmus test for online capabilities was e-mail. Being the cornerstone of communication in the information age, this was a brilliant place to start the migration of services away from the central location of operating system and desktop. E-mail by definition is portable and by nature should be easily assessable from multiple locations. As I'm sure many would attest, e-mail could be considered an extension of the mobile phone.

Yahoo, MSN, Google and others led the charge by providing free e-mail services to any and all who wanted an account. The primary caveats used for building the solution were and remain reliability, ease of use and browser ubiquity. Browser ubiquity is the most interesting of the three as it talks to the decoupling of feature functionality from the operating system and placing it squarely in the browser.

Due in part to the lessons learned in building out a robust, fault-tolerant, global, online e-mail server farm, in addition to the maturity of protocols such as WEBdav, the productivity suite was next on the list for movement into the cloud. Productivity suites and applications have always been offline solutions that were tied to an operating system. (Remember WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS?)

Microsoft Office has positioned itself not only as the incumbent solution but also as the template from which all others will be measured. As powerful as MS Office is, it does have a hefty share of short comings that have left it vulnerable to attack by alternatives. The first of which being that it's tied to an operating system albeit Windows or Mac. This attachment of a desktop OS also removes it from the Web 2.0 framework which promotes services beyond a single device, perpetual beta-ism, and browser ubiquity. Lastly, the MS Office price to play is high and with most knowledge workers using less than 10 percent of the application achieving a favorable ROI is tough proposition.

These short comings have opened the door for newbie productivity applications such as Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho to gain a foothold. The developers of these applications have had the advantage of watching and noting the failures of the incumbent. Likewise, they've incorporated this situational knowledge into these new "must-have" applications. One example of this is from Google Docs. It was determined that the top five features used in MS Office were:

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