Among service contractors, cloud computing is an increasingly popular way of running software. Convenient and liberating, it provides the ability to easily interact 24/7 with business applications that reside on remote servers, using data and software that is always current (updated and synchronized). Because anyone who accesses the software is working with the latest data, cloud computing facilitates collaboration within a company and/or among team members from various companies active in a project.

Cloud computing is created by integrating the Internet, remote servers and networks at data centers that provide the data storage and the software. Applications and data can be accessed from any computing device that has an Internet connection — desktop, laptop, tablet, iPhone or smartphone. Some apps are even designed specifically for smartphones with data presentation optimized for their smaller screen size.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are examples of cloud computing applications where the active data only resides remotely. Microsoft Outlook is an example of cloud computing where the data can reside remotely and on a local computer or computer network.

From a business point of view, cloud computing can offer many capabilities and benefits to HVAC and plumbing contractors. It may be a place to store customer or project data, documents, e-mail and photos, so all authorized team members have access to them from any computing device. Or it may be a way to take advantage of business productivity software your office uses for some or many of your daily tasks from any computing device in or out of the office, without outlaying the cost for hardcopy programs that reside locally and which may have short life cycles. Generally, a full functioning business application on the cloud carries a monthly fee determined by a variety of factors.    

As software developers introduce more and more cloud computing solutions, service contractors may want to migrate to the cloud for a few or even many types of daily computing tasks and functions. App options include dedicated or niche mobile apps that focus on specific construction or business tasks as well as general business software, such as Microsoft Office 365 — the online version of Microsoft Office suite of applications.

For example, the cloud-based Coolfront,www.Coolfront.com, byProfit Strategies Inc., is a new mobile, flat-rate pricing app that enables contractors to skip the paperwork on a service call. Designed specifically for HVAC, plumbing and electrical service companies to use during service calls, as well as for fuel dealers to use during deliveries, Coolfront enables users to search repairs and quote flat-rate prices via smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Coolfront is designed to work online or offline, allowing use of the app even in locations where there is no Internet connection. Users capture all the service call information on the app and search the up-to-date repairs database via a Google-style search function to select the right repairs. Coolfront then automatically calculates repair prices using the hourly rates and mark-ups customized for the user's business.

Service professionals can quote repair fees and customers can view repair costs right from the mobile device. Pricing updates are fed to Coolfront customers in real time, helping ensure contractors use the most current repair pricing available. The app also features on-screen signature capturing, real-time syncing of work orders to the office, and the ability to e-mail a work order directly to a customer upon completion of the work.

The app, dubbed a "zero-cost pricing app" by the developer, allows the contractor to recover the cost of the system on every service call by including the price for each quote ($1.29 each) right within the repair price. Work orders are prepaid, either following a pay-as-you-go model, whereby the contractor prepays for a specific number of work orders and the balance is debited with each work order processed, or via auto pay with automatic replenishment, which can be turned on or off at any time.

The versatile cloud solution for business Microsoft Office 365, www.office365.com, enables access to cloud-based e-mail, file sharing and Office Web Apps (Outlook, Word PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote). Contractors can access e-mail and calendars from mobile devices and can set up a team site to manage projects and share documents, contacts and tasks with team members from virtually anywhere with a browser. Shared files will always include the latest changes and additions so everyone, in the field or in the office, works on the latest version of every document and all data.

Monthly fees for Microsoft Office 365 are on a sliding scale depending upon the number of programs and number of users. For example, with the $6 a month per user Small Business plan, 50 or fewer employees a month can take advantage of cloud-based e-mail using the company's domain name, share calendars, instant messaging (including video conferencing), and utilize web based viewing and editing of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote files.

Bill and Patti Feldman write articles and web content for trade magazines and manufacturers of building products. They can be reached at productpad@yahoo.com