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FLYING GUEST: How the Cloud Melts Away Barriers to Growth for Philly Businesses

Editor's note: Flying Guest is a regularly occurring column contributed by a Greater Philadelphian. For consideration, contact the editor.

In a conversation a year ago with a local investment banker, we discussed what the implications of the broad availability of cheap computing power via cloud computing technologies and access through mobile devices could be for the Philadelphia business community.
We speculated that small, nimble businesses would soon be able to turn on a dime, innovating in real time. Moreover, their access to cloud computing power, to flexible mobile applications, and to software-as-a-service models like Salesforce.com would let them scale operations quickly. That reality seemed very promising, albeit still a few years away. But we were too conservative; that future is now. A study from Microsoft released earlier this month predicts cloud computing will create 20,000 jobs in Philadelphia by 2015.
At this week's cloud conference, the Philadelphia Phorum 2012, we will be exploring these opportunities, with discussions and presentations by local and national business leaders who are using cloud and mobile technologies today to transform their enterprise, bring new ideas to market, and become more nimble in the marketplace.
Many of us already use cloud computing in our daily lives, emailing on Gmail, sharing photos on Flickr or Pinterest, sharing our lives on Facebook or Twitter. These mobile and social technologies are also rapidly penetrating the workplace, with Dropbox file sharing and Google Docs both operating as cloud alternatives to the traditional Microsoft Office products.  And with the number of mobile devices expected to exceed the number of humans on the planet this year, we are clearly experiencing a global connectivity boom that is only going to accelerate.The ability to innovate with cheap, ubiquitous software and computing power is available today, and that affects businesses of any size, across industries.This has implications not only for how business innovation will occur in the coming decades, but also for where such innovation might occur. 
We can see this clearly in the software industry. Because small, nimble technology startups can more easily pivot, they can more quickly challenge larger, more established enterprises. For example, the established Siebel customer relationship management software has been defied by the more nimble Salesforce.com, which delivers its services through the cloud.  
But other, traditional enterprises are also feeling the impact, as software-as-a-service and other cloud and mobile services provide instant, affordable, supported applications that require little of the infrastructure (or top down approvals) that large enterprise systems demand, allowing more agile competitors to quickly ramp up without a large IT spend. Thanks to cloud-based email, accounting, collaboration, project management, productivity, and industry specific software, starting a business now requires far less capital than it used to.  And most of those tools can be scaled in pace with company growth, keeping expenses aligned with revenues. With the traditional frictions for starting a business reduced, the competitive marketplace heats up.
But perhaps even more transformational is that fact that an increasing number of businesses can be anywhere. For any business that is based on intellectual property, including research, software development, and online services, there is little need to be in one of the previously recognized centers of innovation: there is little reason, in other words, that the Delaware Valley couldn’t be another Silicon Valley. 
The implications for the Philadelphia region are clear. Barriers to growth in both access to technology assets and flexibility of location of the workforce are reduced by the introduction of cloud and mobile technologies.  And since the Delaware Valley  has many of the attributes that are essential to fostering business innovation -- a diverse workforce, a vibrant venture and early stage capital scene, a good quality of life, and world class universities and colleges -- the opportunity for business creation and quality job growth exist here, today.   
ROBERT T. KELLEY is Founding Partner of LiquidHub, Inc., a global technology consultancy in Wayne. Send feedback here.
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