We discuss 13 different services that help small businesses boost productivity without the expense of a long-term, upfront investment.
Online collaboration is one of those ideas that just wont go away, which is probably a good thing.
If youre a small firm with employees or partners working in different offices, or if you need to work more closely with customers or suppliers, you really should be taking advantage of this technology.
Online collaboration tools, for which you typically pay by the month per account, can save travel time and costs, increase productivity and make your firm more agile and flexible. How do they work?
Some applications let you set up Web conferences to link participants anywhere in the world so that everyone can view the same documents or information in a browser window. You could make a PowerPoint presentation to a virtual group just as you would in a live meeting. Participants typically need only a computer with an Internet connection and a browser.
Other services include teleconference or video conference as well as instant messaging capabilities, or can be used in conjunction with some other conferencing service. And most allow you to collaborate on editing or marking up documents in real time.
Another class of solution blogs, wikis, file-sharing tools establishes a virtual meeting place where work teams can post documents to share, manage projects and engage in forum-style, non-simultaneous conversations.
But which product/service should you use? The market is already crowded, and almost every week, it seems, new software-as-a-service (SaaS) collaboration products appear.
The latest entrant: IBM with LotusLive, a new platform for consolidating and integrating collaboration tools. It joins other big players: Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Citrix.
And then there are a bunch of smaller, independent companies, often formed specifically to bring their vision of online collaboration to market, companies such as Central Desktop, CallWave and Yugma. They often offer stripped-down free versions of their services that might be enough for very small firms.
Dont ignore the big players, though. They may have started out selling mainly to large enterprises, but theyre very interested in talking to small businesses, too.
LotusLive looks promising, and you dont have to have IBMs flagship Lotus Notes e-mail and collaboration product to use it, although it helps. It also integrates with other applications, including SalesForce.com.
LotusLive so far incorporates Sametime Unyte Web conferencing, and LotusLive Engage, a new solution that works with and builds on Sametime, offering business/social networking and project-management features. Engage is due out early this year but its in open beta now you can test drive it for free.
Sametime is a SaaS version of an earlier IBM client-server Web conferencing product. Its completely browser-based and lets you share your desktop or a specific application, or you can simply publish a few documents to view during a conference.
Sametime is easy to use participants dont have to download anything. It comes with all the security you would expect from an enterprise vendor, yet its reasonably priced $50 to $100 a month for unlimited use.
IBM charges nine cents a minute per participant for toll-free teleconferencing but you could also use some other less-expensive audio conferencing service, including Skype, the online phone service from eBay that provides free Skype-to-Skype calling and very low cost audio conferencing.
LotusLive Engage will let you manage contacts and schedules, create communities and work groups, adding members from your Outlook or Lotus Notes address book. You can also post files to share, create forms to fill in, collaboratively build spreadsheet/databases, launch Sametime meetings and create and manage activities.
An activity could be anything from planning a meeting to launching a product. LotusLive lets participants add and assign to-dos, attach documents and make comments. Instant messaging (IM) rounds out the LotusLive suite. No prices will be available until the product launches, sometime in the first half of 2009.
LotusLive competes directly with products from other large providers such as Microsofts OfficeLive, a file-sharing service currently in beta, and Live Meeting, Microsofts Web conferencing service. Unlike LotusLive, Live Meeting uses integrated voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) for the audio and video portions of a conference.
It also competes with the Cisco Collaboration Portfolio announced last September. The Cisco portfolio includes SaaS versions of WebEx Connect, the pioneering server-based Web conferencing system that Cisco acquired in 2007, as well as Unified Communications (VoIP-based hosted PBX) and TelePresence (video conferencing).
Google meanwhile offers a set of services around collaboration as part of its Google Apps suite for the rock-bottom price of $50 per user account per year, which includes 25GB of online storage and a 30-day free trial.
Google Apps Collaboration includes Google Docs (document sharing and version control), Google Sites (intranets, extranets and team blogs) and Google Video (video sharing for business).
The big players theoretically offer greater stability, security and reliability. That said, GoogleApps went down for 30 hours one day late last year. Nobodys perfect.
Some of the most innovative and cost-effective services, meanwhile, come from independents. CallWave with Fuze Online Meetings is a good example.
Fuze Online Meetings
Fuze is a Web conferencing service that makes it possible to share video in real time. And not just any video Fuze supports HD. In fact, it has been used to collaboratively edit video for a movie trailer.
Everything is transmitted by Fuze in HD resolution, including still images. So when youre showing a PowerPoint presentation, for example, you can zoom in on an element in a slide and the image wont go all blurry and pixilated.
Fuze lets a meeting organizer pass control of the meeting to a participant. The software includes annotation tools lines, shapes, freehand doodling, text so that organizers or a participant can mark up a document under consideration.
CallWave provides low-cost audio conference bridging for Fuze meetings, but it also has a version that integrates with Skype. The Fuze service will even bridge together participants using Skype and people using the public switched telephone network (PSTN).
Another key differentiator: Fuze provides mobile clients for iPhone and BlackBerry that allow an organizer (or a participant) to connect to a meeting while mobile. Organizers can even send HD video from a mobile device (assuming they have a 3G connection.)
Fuze is priced at $29 per month per meeting organizer for unlimited use during the beta period. The price will go up to $49 next year. Attendees pay nothing for Web conferencing and dont have to download anything, either.
There are other products like Fuze. Yugma offers very similar features, including Skype functionality and free audio conference bridging but not support for HD resolution.
It also has a whiteboard feature that lets participants add comments, and a file-sharing feature so that organizers and attendees can upload files to the Yugma server, where others can access them for viewing during the conference.
Keep an eye on Toktumi. Its not a true Web-conferencing tool, yet. Toktumi is a very inexpensive hosted PBX that uses VoIP over the Internet and also offers effective and inexpensive (or free) audio conferencing. The company plans to add chat functionality at some point.
If youre looking for something that provides project management and file sharing capabilities rather than Web conferencing, check out Huddle, an online service from a British-based company.
Like others of its kind, Huddle lets you set up shared workspaces to which you can invite team members, setting permissions for them to indicate what they can do in the work space (view only or edit content.)
Then you can upload files to share. Team members with the appropriate permissions can download and edit documents, then upload them again after editing. The system preserves and keeps track of earlier versions and provides an audit trail so you can see who made changes when. It can also notify team members automatically when changes are made.
Huddle offers the capability to collaboratively create Microsoft Office Word and Excel documents online right within the Huddle interface. And it provides a whiteboard function that lets you create an instantly visible space for displaying text, graphics and links.
The project management features let you create tasks, assign them to team members and track progress. You can also set milestones and deadlines. Huddle will automatically send reminders of approaching deadlines, and it lets you quickly display all past-due deadlines.
Rounding out the services main features is the Forum function, which allows you to set up multiple discussion forums for each workspace in which team members can exchange messages either in real time or offline.
Huddle is free for one workspace, suitable for one team or project, and 1GB of online storage. Prices for paid packages start at $20 a month for five workspaces and 2.5GB of storage and go up to $99 for 20 workspaces and 20GB of storage.
Zoho Projects, part of the comprehensive suite of Zoho SaaS products, provides very similar functionality, but provides just 100MB of free storage with the free one-project service.
Other project management/collaboration services include GroupSwim, a wiki-style tool with functionality similar to the software behind Wikipedia. One of the best and best established products of this type is Central Desktop, which we wrote about earlier here.
Finally, there is Octopz, a highly regarded, award-winning SaaS offering that was developed primarily for creative professionals. One of its key differentiators is that it allows team members in a workspace to collaboratively mark up a large number of different types of documents, including images and video.
Octopz is also unusual among file-sharing-type collaboration tools in providing integrated text, voice and video chat. Its a little more expensive, however $99 per month with only 1GB of storage.
Which service you choose ultimately comes down to what you need most. There is a fairly clear distinction between collaboration tools based on Web conferencing like Fuze and those based on shared workspaces and project management, like Huddle. Some share features of both, such as Octopz and LotusLive. And some providers, such as Microsoft, provide a range of not-always-tightly-integrated capabilities that span both types.
And there are more products out there. Search online collaboration in Google. Try them out its usually free.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.
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