Cloud Apps for Small and Medium Business Leave MobileMe Users Envious

Last Updated Aug 25, 2010 3:28 AM EDT

Apple (AAPL) is no longer the king of sync. Even just a year ago, the frictionless connectivity between Mac, iTunes and iOS devices inspired systemic lust in info-nerds. But these days, it's SMB cloud services that are blowing the lid off connectivity.

Call it the Sync Revolution. Or call it About Damn Time. Either way, small businesses intranets are some of the most fascinatingly flexible systems being developed today. HP (HPQ) has taken notice, bidding up cloud services provider 3PAR to nearly three times its value before snatching it out the hands of rival Dell (DELL) for $1.6 billion in cash. SiliconAngle summarizes the reason for the bidding war:

3PAR is a technology company that, while it has some F1000 companies on its customer list, serves a lot of small and mid-sized firms, including cloud service providers. Its main emphasis since day one has been on simplifying IT and from its inception it has focused on what it calls "utility computing."
"Utility computing," to use 3PAR's term, is just a word that describes what any SMB employee already knows: that the average small business doesn't have an entire IT staff or budget to futz around building a code-heavy proprietary network. The word "utility" is aptly chosen -- it calls to mind the local electric company or gas provider, as well it should.

Three of the finest examples of "utility computing" are Arc90's Kindling, Memeo's Connect 2.0, and Box.net, which have all been making tremendous strides. I've been using Box.net lately for project work, and the others on a trial basis; all three have leapfrogged Google (GOOG) and Apple, whose elegant solutions for consumer connectivity (like Google Sync and MobileMe) once seemed out of reach for business users.

The three services offer a similar approach: your files and documents hosted on the cloud, available through any device (including iOS, Android and Blackberry) and fully text-searchable. They vary in approach; Memeo is heavily tied to Google (GOOG) Apps, while Kindling focuses on ideation and conversation. Box.net might be the most versatile of the three, with stellar iOS apps for iPad and iPhone and startling growth rates thanks to a number of Fortune500 clients like Nike (NKE) and P&G (PG).

But what they all share is a simple, platform-at-all-costs attitude that stiffer systems like Microsoft (MSFT) SharePoint wouldn't deign to embrace. Memeo Connect and Box.net both support desktop sync software, much like enterprise versions of the consumer-grade program Dropbox (no relation), which plops a sync'd folder on your desktop and updates it constantly on the computers you share with. Box and Memeo also offer themselves up as de facto FTP clients for sharing files, and all three have beautifully-made mobile clients. Arc90 offers an API that lets developers play with Kindling's data and analytics, reminiscent of the way Mint.com allows consumers to play around with pie charts of their monthly spending. The UI on the desktop and the mobile applications evokes the social Web, not old versions of Windows.

"[SMBs] need applications that can be up and running in minutes, require no more user training than Facebook or Flickr, and scale alongside their business," says Box.net CEO Aaron Levie.

In my recent experience (particularly with Box.net) it's the sandbox spirit that has come to truly impress. The company has an extensive API that a number of developers have taken advantage of, not least of all the folks that develop vital iPad productivity apps like QuickOffice, which edits Microsoft Office documents, and GoodReader, a robust PDF and document reader. If the iPad ever makes it as a productivity tool (and Levie has said he believes it's likely) it will be because of this ecosystem of interdependent -- but independently-developed -- apps. If business users don't find any apps in the free market that interact with Box the way they want, they can roll their own with a lot of helpful documentation. (But with apps that connect Zoho for online editing, FedEx Office for printing, eFax, DocuSign, Google Apps, Scribd and QuickBooks from Intuit's (INTU), it's hard to imagine they would need to.)

The point of these partnerships, says Levie, is to "keep our product uncluttered and our roadmap focused." His team focusses only on the core programming. "Instead of trying to develop every critical feature for our users, we can work with best-in-class service providers for specific functionalities."

Box's sandbox spirit is in keeping with what has become near-obsession in Web startups on both coasts: unhindered developer access to the building blocks of the service. Where the "platform" ethic was once reserved mostly for social Web tools like Facebook or Twitter, other more traditional companies (like MasterCard (MC), with their payments API) have begun to embrace the growth-comes-first model that has driven so many Web startups to open up their tools. Before long, the term "software as a service" won't make much sense; the future is "software as platform".

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