Whether you need to schedule meetings or share, store and sync documents, it's never been easier or cheaper for SMBs to get the job done, thanks to collaboration Web tools. Here's our pick of the best.
As small business people, we have it pretty good right now. We're not talking about the economy, naturally. It's still way too unsettling. We're talking about small business technology.
We have at our disposal an amazing arsenal of small business software. Many of these tools are sophisticated, easy to use, cloud-computing-based, and either free or low cost. Jump back 10 years via your hot tub time machine, and you'll see what we mean: The small business technology we have now beats what a lot of large corporations were using a decade ago.
And what are these amazing tools? There are too many Web tools to cover in any one article. So here are 10 of the best small business software programs and Web tools for collaborating, storing, sharing and syncing documents.
1 and 2. Microsoft Office Web Apps and Google Docs: Collaboration
Microsoft is taking a more aggressive stance toward Google these days, both with its search engine (Bing) and with its Microsoft Office Web Apps, which compete with Google Docs. That's good news for you, because like Google Docs, Office Web Apps is free to use.
With Office Web Apps and Google Docs, collaborating on a document with colleagues is much easier over the Web. You don't have to email files back and forth and keep track of multiple versions.
But here's the catch: neither Office Web Apps nor Google Docs are as full-featured as their counterpart Office desktop software apps, such as Word and Excel.
Example: Office Web Apps and Google Docs allow you to view previously saved versions of a text document. But neither one currently offers something akin to Word's Track Changes. Annoying as Track Changes can be, it's a feature many people depend on when synthesizing edits from multiple collaborators.
Which one should you go with? At the moment, Google Docs' features are a bit more sophisticated features than Office Web Apps with, for example, the capability to translate a text document into another language. But Office Web Apps, not surprisingly, maintains more of the look and feel of Office on a Windows PC. And Office Web Apps tends to do a better job of maintaining the formatting of an imported file than Google Docs does.
Bottom Line: Using either suite of online Web tools can simplify the process of collaborating on basic documents. Since both of these small business solutions are free, give each a try with a simple, non-urgent document or two and see what you think.
3. Windows Live SkyDrive: Storing and Sharing Files
Along with Office Web Apps, the folks at Microsoft give us Windows Live SkyDrive, with up to 25GB of free online file storage. Just so you know -- that's a lot of free file storage.
Instead of trying to email large files as attachments, you can easily add them to a shared folder in your SkyDrive account. Those to whom you give access can then download files from your shared folder directly to their computers.
Though SkyDrive isn't new, it has recently received new features. Most importantly, SkyDrive is now integrated with Microsoft's Office Web Apps, Hotmail, Messenger and Microsoft's Photo Gallery.
As of this moment, SkyDrive lets you sync up to 2GB of files from your computer to your SkyDrive storage account via Windows Live Sync. The latter is a computer utility and Web service similar in nature to Dropbox and SugarSync (see no. 4 and 5 below), but not as full featured.
4 and 5. Dropbox and SugarSync: Sync, Share and Store Files
We've got smartphones, netbooks, laptops and now the iPad. Great -- now we have the potential to work practically anywhere. (Or not so great, depending upon your point of view.) What sometimes stops us, though, is not having the file we need on the device we have in hand.
That's why a Dropbox or SugarSync account is so essential. They do something magical: They synchronize your files between multiple computers and store them in the cloud, too.
Thus, a PowerPoint presentation you created on your MacBook Air will automatically be copied to and updated on your Windows 7 desktop at the office (as long as both computers are connected to the Internet). You can access your synced documents from any computer's Web browser or from mobile devices, including the iPad.
Dropbox and SugarSync offer varying degrees of file sharing, too, though neither one gives you 25GB of storage for free, as SkyDrive does. Dropbox and SugarSync each offer free plans with a 2GB storage restriction -- which might be enough for syncing a solo entrepreneur's most important files.
Dropbox plans are geared toward individuals. Along with the free 2GB plan, there is the Pro 50, with 50GB of file storage for $10 per month; and the Pro 100, with 100GB of storage for $20 per month.
In addition to its free 2GB service, SugarSync has individual plans for 30GB ($5 per month), 60GB ($10 per month), 100GB ($15 per month) and 250GB ($25 monthly). But SugarSync also has multi-user plans for businesses starting at $30 per month for up to three users and up to 100GB. SugarSync also provides more features than Dropbox, such as apps for BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile smartphones.
We love both Dropbox and SugarSync. The main drawback to Dropbox, and it's a minor one for us, is that everything you want to sync has to be in one Dropbox folder. Also, Dropbox is a bit more expensive than SugarSync, but Dropbox is a tad easier to use.
6. WatchDox: Secure Document Sharing
Many small businesses must share sensitive information with other people on a regular basis, such as marketing briefs that describe products under development, financial documents, human resource records, non-disclosure statements, and legal contracts. For documents that need an extra layer of security, there's WatchDox.
WatchDox is a straightforward service that provides a much higher level of control and security than standard Web-based document sharing services.
For example, when sharing a document via WatchDox, you can prevent recipients from printing, copying or forwarding the document; set an expiration date (after which a recipient can no longer view the document); or obtain tracking information relative to a recipient's interaction with a document. You can even prevent people from taking a screen shot of a document they're viewing on a monitor.
WatchDox is primarily a software-as-a-service product, though there's a new Windows-based app for uploading multiple documents at once to your online WatchDox "virtual data room." WatchDox also offers a Microsoft Office plug-in that lets you send secure documents from Outlook and view and edit protected files in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
WatchDox plans begin at $50 per month for a one person, with 200 MB of file storage, a maximum document size of 10 MB, and up to five recipients per document.
7. Basecamp: Project Management
For small businesses with geographically scattered collaborators, 37Signals' Basecamp helps bring organization to what might otherwise become chaos.
Basecamp is a Web-based collaboration and project management tool popular with many small businesses (and some big ones, too), for which the software serves as a kind of Intranet. Marketing guru and author Seth Godin is an avowed Basecamp advocate as well.
Basecamp makes it easy (or easier, at least) to simultaneously juggle multiple projects. The software lets you create to-do lists for each project and assign people to each task. It offers file sharing, a message board, and the capability to track milestones and time spent on tasks, among other features.
The least expensive Basecamp plan is $24 per month after a free 30-day trial. It's designed for small groups that only need to manage up to 15 projects at a time and don't need time tracking. Other plans are $49, $99 and $149 per month.
8. Yammer: Messaging Within the Company
Yammer is like Twitter and Facebook, but private. With Yammer, any company can have its own social network for instant business communications. Employees, contractors, clients and anyone else you invite can quickly share information and ask questions via status updates. Members of a Yammer network can post their own profiles, with contact info and photo. And all this information becomes a searchable archive.
You can "yammer" in a Web browser, using the Yammer Windows or Mac desktop applications, or via apps for iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Android devices. A basic Yammer account is free, while more full-featured plans are $3 or $5 per user per month, depending on the features.
9. Google Calendar: Group Scheduling
Microsoft Outlook tied to Microsoft Exchange Server is the corporate standard for calendaring, as well for as email and contacts. But for most small businesses, Outlook/Exchange is overkill and too expensive.
Google Calendar is a more sensible -- and free -- alternative. GCal, as it's called, makes it easy to share your calendar with other people in your organization. They can see their own Google Calendar appointments as well as yours in one Web browser calendar.
Each calendar is color coded, so you can easily tell them apart. And you can hide the details of your appointments from each person with whom you share calendars. They'll simply see that, say, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Friday you're busy, without knowing that's your regularly scheduled yodeling lesson.
You could also maintain and share a company-wide calendar, with team project deadlines and such, for all to see. You can easily hide or view other calendars. And you can sync Google Calendar easily with your smartphone's calendar app, as well as with Outlook, iCal on the Mac and other calendar software.
10. TimeBridge: Meetings, Web and Audio Conferences
Google Calendar helps you schedule appointments with co-workers because you can see, at a glance, when they're available. But often, you need to meet with people outside the company. That's where TimeBridge comes in.
TimeBridge eliminates the back and forth in email when two or more people try to find a time to meet. Using TimeBridge, you can give each meeting invitee a choice of up to five date and time choices. Invitees receive an email with a link to the TimeBridge site, where they can vote for their choices (the options are No, Yes and Best). Based on how people vote, TimeBridge determines the winner.
TimeBridge works with Outlook, iCal, Google Calendar and the iPhone, and you can use it from any Web browser. A basic plan is free, while plans with more features -- such as the capability to conduct audio and Web conferences (with video chat) -- begin at $14 per month after a 30-day free trial.James A. Martin has written about technology since the 80s and is coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era.
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