As many businesses decide to shift their computing into the ether, cloud computing is the latest buzz phrase in information technology. Many companies large and small see this as the way to free them from the burden of running their own major IT infrastructure. Cloud computing allows them to move the running of technology functions, ranging from email to accounting and customer relationship management software, to a host of providers accessible over the internet.

Microsoft's approach to cloud computing has been to build on its years of work with businesses and information technology to give the end user a seamless extension of its desktop office suite. The company currently claims that it is 10 times cheaper for larger corporations and 40 times cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises to use the company's Azure "platform as a service" cloud computing offering, rather than to continue to provide such computer platforms for themselves. And many large and small companies have found this to be accurate. One postal service provider, for example, will save 10−15% on maintenance costs alone over a four-year period, as it no longer owns its IT systems; these are now the responsibility of Microsoft and the organisation's broader IT service provider.

Microsoft remains committed to its protracted, multistep software release process and Office 2010 already delivers collaboration features, including co-authoring available on Word, PowerPoint and Excel. For businesses relying on PowerPoint and Excel files on a daily basis, the online versions prove extremely helpful in eliminating wasted time with compatibility issues as well as eliminating the potential for losing documents on a portable drive.

Cloud computing technology is all around, yet few realise how much we take advantage of it. From e-mail to music streaming and photo hosting, much of our lives are on the cloud. The advantages of cloud computing often far outweigh the negatives: seemingly unlimited storage space, data backup, and free upgrades are offered through these services. All users need is an Internet connection and a computer.

And a forecast for the future? Microsoft Office 365 is the forthcoming cloud platform. Office 365 is the successor to Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite). BPOS is a SaaS platform that includes Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and other cloud applications hosted and managed by Microsoft for end-customers. 365 is due to launch this year, and Microsoft has indicated that Office 365 will be generally available in 40 countries and regions sometime in 2011.

Microsoft has stated that: "With Office 365 for small businesses, professionals and small companies with fewer than 25 employees can be up and running with Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online and an external website in just 15 minutes. Office 365 for enterprises introduces an array of choices for midsize and large businesses as well as government organisations. Office 365 for enterprises also includes the option to get Microsoft Office Professional Plus desktop software on a pay-as-you-go basis, for the first time ever. Organisations can get Office Professional Plus along with e-mail, voicemail, enterprise social networking, instant messaging, Web portals, extranets, voice conferencing and videoconferencing, web conferencing, 24×7 phone support, on-premises licenses, and more."

Microsoft also plans to expand Office 365 to include Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online to provide Microsoft's complete business productivity experience to organisations of all types and sizes. In addition, Office 365 for education will debut later this year, giving students, faculty and school employees powerful technology tailored specifically to their needs.