Like many decision makers in medium sized businesses, I’ve been complaining for years about our IT costs. Expensive back up equipment, huge Microsoft licensing charges for each generation of what was the ubiquitous Office suite of programs, and constantly updating hardware to retain our capacity to store all our own data. As an estate agent, you can imagine how many photographs we’ve amassed over the years.

I was also aware that many staff, myself included, faced the “multiple PC” problem – most of us using laptops or mobile devices whilst on the move, and “checking in” over the weekend from our home computers. Inevitably the data you really need is always “on my other PC” – leading to huge inefficiencies.

I became vaguely aware of the cloud as an option towards the end of 2008, but it took a calamity to force me to try it out – a total hard drive failure on my own PC! Fortunately, I was reasonably well backed up, but once I’d inserted my new drive, I took the decision to free myself from the desktop and from Microsoft! These are the steps I went through:

  1.  I moved our e-mail server to Google Apps

I was able to move our own domain name to Google Apps, which effectively gives us Gmail as a user interface. I have to confess it took me some time to get used to it – after years of Outlook, I had become so used to carefully storing e-mail in folders, and trimming away the excess to save the Exchange server space.

It slowly dawned on me that neither is necessary with Gmail – the storage space is pretty much unfillable, and the search system is so good, you simply don’t need to file things away. If you want that mail from Dave about the left handed widget, just type “Dave left handed widget” into the search box, and up it comes. It is Google after all. A side benefit of the switch is that spam just disappeared. GMail’s spam filters are simply amazing!

  1.  I started using Google Docs

Google Docs is a free, open source, Web-based package which closely matches the Office suite, offering word processing, presentations and spreadsheets. Being Web-based, I can access all my documents from anywhere, and I can simply share them with anyone I want to. No storage on my PC reduces the need for ever larger hard drives, and of course I never need to back up my Google Docs.

  1.  I started using Open Office

As you’ll remember, I was determined to stop paying licensing charges to Microsoft. Whilst Google Docs were working well for me, I needed a solution to handle documents from people who were still working with Office. I’d looked at Open Office years ago, and found it clunky and awkward. But it’s really come on, and if you’re familiar with Office, then Open Office will seem totally intuitive. Everything opens easily and documents can be converted quickly to Office format for other people. And here’s another huge benefit – Open Office comes with a brilliant “Export to PDF” function, which produces perfect PDFs of anything.

  1.  I installed Dropbox on all my PCs

Dropbox is simply wonderful. It’s a folder on your desktop, which can appear on all your PCs, once downloaded to them. You can access your documents from any of your Dropboxes, and they all synchronise. Make some changes to a file on your desktop PC, and it’s instantly changed on your Laptop. It all happens in the background – you don’t actually need to do anything.

And the best part is that anything in your Dropbox is automatically backed up to Dropbox’s servers – no more backing up! Because of this, you can even access your Dropbox from the Web – using an internet café machine for example, and you can even share files with people by simply sending them a link. I use Dropbox now as “My Documents” and store everything in there.

So where does this leave us? If this computer disappeared in a puff of smoke now, I could be up and running on a new machine in the time it takes to download Dropbox! My e-mail is simply a link away, from there I can access my calendar and all my Google Docs, and Dropbox would be ready to access all my stored stuff. Better yet, I don’t need a huge hard drive to do my work – a netbook will be fine thanks.