Documents are arguably the lifeblood of any construction, architecture and engineering business. Most businesses use some kind of office suite of products that have word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs. They run either on individual machines or on the company’s server. Until recently, that was the only way these programs were available and they came with a price tag that was never ending – you had to upgrade at regular intervals and if you didn’t you’d be sacrificing security or interoperability.

Now, you can do your document creation in the cloud and there are several free word processing offerings. For this post I’m going to focus on the free cloud version of Microsoft Word, and then in subsequent posts I’ll share my views on the other free word processing offerings currently available in the cloud.  Keep in mind, I’m reviewing these from the perspective of very small businesses that might want to start moving their document creation and document sharing to the cloud. There are plenty of robust offerings for large enterprises and those are covered in other places on this blog.

Menu from Windows Live User Home Page

Picture management is very limited in the cloud version of Word.

I am writing this post on MS Word in the cloud. What you have to do is get a Windows Live ID and then sign in. At the top of the page you’ll see an “Office” link and where you can select the type of document you want to create.  Right away I have run into a frustrating limitation and that is the way pictures are handled, or rather, not handled. I took the screen shot you see here and uploaded it to the page. It was appropriately placed on the left side, bumping the text below it. There is no way that I’ve found where you can cause the text to wrap. The only thing you can do with the picture once it’s on the page is resize it and add “Alt” text.

Windows Live Word Menu Screenshot

All text functions are under the Home tab.

All of the controls for the text portion of your document are under the “Home” tab. You can cut, copy and paste and manipulate the text by bolding, underlining and italicizing. You can increase and decrease the indention, set it to justify left, center or right, and you can change the text direction between left to right and right to left. There are about 30 fonts to choose from and you can do sub and superscript and change the font colors. You can also highlight text and there are a number of buttons that allow you to change the heading sizes. There is also a spelling checker.  My connection to the Internet is not the fastest by any means (about 3Mb down and 586kb up), but working on the document was no different than if I was working within a program on my computer. There is one annoying little thing related to highlighting text when you want to type over it or insert a link. The highlighting doesn’t seem to turn off and you can easily highlight an entire page in a millisecond.

The reality is that for most documents a construction firm might have to create this would work just fine except for the options available to you once the document is complete. You can choose to “Share” the document but to do that you enter the person’s email address. The “sharee” gets an email and when they click on the link to view the document they end up at the Windows Live sign in page. So, as long as the person who you want to share the document with has a Windows Live account they can log in and see the document. This is kind of nice for internal reviews where you want a number of people to collaborate on the document’s creation, but it would be a real pain if you wanted to send the document to 10 subcontractors, or vendors. Of course, you can also “Print” the document but if you are working in the cloud that seems like kind of a silly thing to do, unless of course you are still using postal mail to send out your correspondence. If you’re still mailing things then you’re probably not reading this, and any discussion about clouds no doubt centers on the precipitation that’s falling from them, and not about moving business processes to them.

You can get the document on your local machine by choosing to “Open in Word.” But again, let’s face it, if you are moving to the cloud you probably want to stop buying and maintaining Word on your computer or server.  So the ability to use the document in meaningful and easy ways once it is created is very limited and for that reason I don’t think this is a serious cloud solution for even the smallest of construction businesses.