Commentators have been questioning Microsoft’s online software-as-a-service strategy.  Some are gnashing their teeth, worrying, “Why, oh, why isn’t Microsoft providing desktop services like word processing online?”

But you know what?  I would suggest that it’s not about being able to compose word processing docs online. Who wants to have to go online to write a document anyway?  In fact, Microsoft is providing quite a lot to small and mid-size businesses already that you can put to good use -- today.  

There are major strategic issues at play for Microsoft and other players to consider.  But from the vantage point of a small business, the debate over online services and applications seems like a tempest in a teapot. 

In fact, I would suggest that Microsoft is giving many small and mid-size businesses quite a lot of what they actually need -- and are in a position to use today.

For instance, let’s look at desktop applications, which are a major area of small business usage.  When it comes to the average business -- especially a small business -- most are not quick to look for a replacement for their desktop applications like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.  Why not?  Some basic practical reasons:

We are still a long way from ubiquitous online connectivity. If you are really going to replace desktop applications with online applications, you’d need something close to 100 percent connectivity.  If your business is located in a big city on the East or West Coasts, you might be tempted to take for granted being online and assume that every business is online all the time.  But life is not like that in the vast regions of America where most small businesses operate.  For instance, where I live, in a small town outside of Cleveland, Ohio, I know of several businesses still using dial-up connections for Internet access -- and they dial up intermittently to get online because often they are using the same phone line for a fax machine or even their voice calls.  Single-person businesses, which make up 19.5 million of the 25-plus million small businesses in this country, in particular, tend to still use dial-up.  Future visions of large population areas covered by WiFi clouds are just that in most of flyover country -- future visions.  Bottom line:  we’re still not close to being online 100 percent of the time.  And until then, online applications are not practical for many businesses. 

Most online applications are not as robust as Microsoft’s varieties.  Just because a business is “small” does not mean we need “small” or less than full-featured applications for our businesses.  One of the great enablers leveling the playing field in the past decade is the fact that small businesses have had access to the same office and desktop technology as their larger customers and clients and competitors.  If you are a consultant or attorney or accountant or public relations executive, you can be using exactly the same tools as your larger competitors and your clients.  You can be sending documents back and forth with Fortune 1000 clients, in the same format documents that they use.   This one single thing does more to put a small business on an equal footing with large corporations than other more expensive steps you can take to make your business appear “big,” such as renting expensive office space.

It costs more to use non-Microsoft desktop applications.  Wait, you’re thinking, she’s got that backwards.  Isn’t it cheaper to use free online applications provided by companies like Google, rather than Microsoft’s desktop versions that cost several hundred dollars?  Well, any good businessperson knows there are stated costs … and then there are hidden costs.  On the surface free applications seem cheaper -- hey, they’re free, after all.  But when you look at how you use them in your business, they may not have any cost advantage.  In fact, they may cost your business money because of added employee training and the need to spend time converting documents from one format to another so that clients can access them. There is considerable business value in having standardized programs that everyone uses.  I still remember the early days of word processing, when there were dozens of programs, and you wasted countless hours trying to convert documents from one format to another and manually fixing what didn’t convert properly.  That’s not an experience I am eager to repeat, because it does absolutely nothing to further my business.

Meanwhile, let’s take a quick look at a few of the key online services Microsoft provides today for small businesses:

  1. If you need document templates, clip art, usage tips and assorted add-ons and enhancements, you can connect online to the Microsoft website and download them at no additional cost.  It’s a “hybrid” solution as Microsoft calls it -- desktop applications plus access online for specific purposes -- and it makes eminent sense given the way we use such applications.
  2. We can get an online presence, including a website, domain name, website statistics and e-mail accounts, called Office Live for free, and upgraded packages for an affordable monthly cost.
  3. You can download Microsoft’s Office Accounting Express program for free.  Yep, 100 percent free accounting software.
  4. You can download what is considered a top notch anti-spyware program, called Microsoft Defender for free.

The list is longer -- but you get the picture.  Microsoft has done a lot over the years to put small businesses on a level playing field with larger businesses via technology.

So, will we small businesses be using online applications more extensively in the future?  Definitely.  And the possibilities are exciting.  But we’re talking future possibilities, not current realities.  For now, Microsoft is giving many small businesses like mine exactly the kind of online services we are in a position to actually use.

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.