IBM SmartCloud Docs productivity suite to challenge Office 365, Google Docs

IBM's SmartCloud Docs productivity suite offers mobile employees a way to access documents and more from any device, anywhere.

Organizations willing to ditch legacy Microsoft Office for a cloud productivity suite now have another option with IBM SmartCloud Docs -- Big Blue's attempt to provide an alternative to Google Docs and Office 365.

IBM released the new cloud-based suite this month. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tools built off the back of IBM's previous work with Apache's OpenOffice suite.

The intention is to provide customers with enough features for collaboration and document creation in the public cloud at an affordable price for all the workers who don't need full-blown Office.

But, SmartCloud Docs will never replace the feature-rich version of Microsoft Office for lawyers drawing up contracts or financial analysts using Excel, said Ed Brill, IBM's director of social business and collaboration solutions.

Some IT shops may even see value in using this offering alongside an on-premises productivity suite.

"Cloud and legacy applications are not mutually exclusive," said Tom Petrocelli, a social collaboration analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, a research firm based in Milford, Mass. "It's not an either/or situation. IT departments can be more strategic if employees are using similar versions of productivity suites, depending on their business needs."

Cloud productivity suites prove valuable

Colleagues in Care (CIC), a health care non-profit based in Virginia Beach, Va., brings together volunteer health care workers from around the United States. The organization needed a way for doctors to share, edit, and store medical training protocols that could be accessed by health care workers in Haiti.

Before using IBM's SmartCloud for uploading and storing files to collaboratively edit them, the organization was drowning in a sea of emails, file versions and collaborative red tape.

Cloud productivity pricing

IBM SmartCloud Docs is free for existing SmartCloud Advanced customers, or as a $3 per user per month add-on for Standard customers. (SmartCloud Advanced costs $10 per user per month.)

Google Docs, which is included in Apps for Business, costs $50 per user per year. Office 365 costs $8 per person per month. The traditional desktop version of Microsoft Office costs $400 for a one-time purchase.

"It was dueling banjos," said Marie Kenerson, CIC's chief collaboration and learning officer.

Now, a doctor in Minnesota can upload a training protocol or medical procedure to SmartCloud, get real-time comments and feedback from another doctor in New York City, while the document becomes translated into French and Creole from someone in California, before Haitian health care workers access the documents on their iPhones, tweak them to their own needs and apply to their practices.

"If we had to buy [on-premises] applications to accomplish what we are trying to do it would have been impossible," Kenerson said.

As a result of SmartCloud docs, health care workers in Haiti have access to training manuals, medical certification programs, and other documents developed and refined from the best medical professionals in the United States. It's a huge change from the "hit-and-run approach typically taken by western doctors during times of need in developing nations," she added.

Consumerization calls for on-premises and cloud productivity suites

In today's computing world of social, mobile and cloud, organizations should offer employees a productivity suite that can be used regardless of computing device or whether that device was connected to a network or not. Organizations willing to mix-and-match productivity applications should be able to save money in the process, Petrocelli noted.

Microsoft is currently the only company that offers the best of both worlds with legacy Office and Office 365, however, the company's mobile application component is lacking with Office not being available for Android or iOS devices. Google can provide browser-based and mobile productivity apps, but lacks a standard offline desktop client.

To that end, in the first quarter of 2013, IBM said it will release a version of the productivity suite that can be installed in a customer's private cloud, or on-premises on top of their instance of IBM Connections. Until then, organizations could use OpenOffice if they need a full-featured desktop client.

Google also rolled out new features to its cloud productivity suite this week that provides business customers a free Quickoffice iPad app that includes built-in Google Drive integration. Users can now easily store files from their laptops in Drive and access them to edit files offline through the Quickoffice app. Versions for the iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets are currently in development.

In a blog post announcing the changes, Google also said it is working to incorporate Quickoffice's file conversion technology so documents opened in Google Docs, Quickoffice, OpenOffice or Microsoft Office have better format consistency.

"You don't want your files locked in amber so you can't use them," Petrocelli said.

At the same time, switching between competing productivity applications can be challenging because of file format compatibility issues, despite the overwhelming similarity of most productivity suites.

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