Cloud computing is an increasingly popular way of software developers delivering productivity software applications and users accessing them through any Internet-enabled browser as if the applications were installed on the user's own computer. Users benefit from software applications without investing in new infrastructure, additional personnel, or outlaying money to purchase packaged software.

Cloud computing is generally considered more useful for small companies than larger companies because, typically, it is less customizable, and the data is stored on a remote server, which may increase the risk of compromise of privacy and security compared to data stored on a company network.

Some applications are free; many are subscription based or usage based. Some applications (SaaS - Software as a Service) operate much as packaged, locally installed, software, but with the advantage of simplified maintenance and support. However, the user cannot interact with it and it usually has a smaller set of features than desktop-installed software applications of the same type. With other cloud computing solutions (PaaS - Platform as a Service), the vendors are responsible for the operation, maintenance and management of the application.

Contractors are likely to utilize cloud computing productivity applications that replicate or replace applications found in traditional "office suites," such as applications for word processing, scheduling, spreadsheets, presentation software and database management.

Two SaaS options
Adobe suite of cloud-based applications (, available free with limited functionality, or as subscription-based, with more functions, offers PDF conversion, Web meetings, word processing and real-time collaboration. With the FormsCentral service, users can design, distribute, collect and analyze data from HTML forms and surveys. Additionally, users can sign, send, track and file contracts online, using SendNow and EchoSign from Adobe.

Google Docs (, a free Web-based SaaS office suite and data usage solution, enables creating, sharing, modifying and working on documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms in real-time in collaboration with others. Users can import documents from their desktop and there's access from any computer or smartphone. Users can store files online and publish to everyone or anyone from their list of contacts, and one Gigabyte of storage is free, additional storage is available at per year fees.

There are also cloud-based solutions that enable data collection on mobile devices (and in this case work for mobile users whether in wireless coverage or not).

Canvas pre-built mobile business apps ( are available for a free 30-day trial then choice of a service-based plan. The apps replace data collection paper forms with DIY business apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile Smartphone and netbooks. Among the forms an HVAC or plumbing contractor might find useful:

My Plumber Service Form: Tracks basic details for the time of service, along with job numbers, water analysis, sewer and drain analysis, a list of work completed, further recommendations, work authorizations, warranties and all payment information.

My Plumber Service Estimate: Tracks basic information such as job number, date, time, and address as well as estimate details, a list of estimates, and a final screen of totals and notes. All data is in list form.

Job Estimator: Tracks basic information along with specific details of the job and records a list of all work to be performed. A user can track the description of work, hours of labor, rate of labor, and all parts and can show customers either total cost or cost broken down into parts and labor.

Change Order Form: Tracks each client's key information, details the proposed changes and terms of the contract and shows the cost of the change, and if you have touch screen device collects the client's signature on the change.

HVAC Service Form: Tracks basic job information, parts used, serial numbers on the customer's equipment, final check list and recommendations. The charges and costs screen handles all calculations and displays parts and labor subtotals, and final totals, sales tax included. The form also allows both the worker and the client to sign terms and conditions agreements.

Plumbing/Heating Contractors Material & Labor Records - Deluxe 221: Collects data for weekly time records for all jobs, including hours, overtime, earnings and deductions.

HVAC Customer Satisfaction Survey: For HVAC service contractors, a form to be filled out by clients at the end of a service event that tracks basic customer information and asks questions based on satisfaction with the company, the specific technician and the products installed or repaired.

All the data collected with each app is stored in a secure database on Canvas servers. Plus, you can use the Canvas website to configure charts and graphs for dynamic, real-time web reporting and can export data to a PDF for viewing and editing in various applications and by others. The data can also be plugged directly into back office systems like QuickBooks, QuickBase, and others.

You can also build your own mobile business app using the Canvas-based service or you can send your current paper forms (service or work order, etc.) and Canvas will convert your form into a Canvas mobile app at no cost during your free trial period.

Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, trade associations, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at: