Work Smarter With Online Collaboration Tools

These online collaboration services offer tools for every business need, and every budget.

Budget constraints and limited technical support make it critical for most small and medium-size companies to work as efficiently as possible. An important first step in getting more and better work from relatively few people is to enable them to work together in real time, no matter how distant they actually may be.

In this brief guide, I'll explain how to select collaboration tools to match your business's needs. The free Google Apps service is a sensible starting point for many companies. But in some instances, a more-robust paid service, such as HyperOffice or even Google's Apps Premier Edition, can be worth the expense.

Google Apps

If your small business is just getting started with online collaboration, the free version of Google Apps is an excellent place to dive in. Google's service acts as a good baseline that any paid competitor should match, as it includes e-mail with a large amount of free storage, sharable calendars, document editing, and other tools.

With Google Apps or any other service, e-mail lies at the heart of your collaboration. Gmail includes more than 7GB of space for free accounts, and Google is constantly adding storage to the service. You'll always connect through secure HTTP to encrypt data. And as with any other collaboration service, you can access messages from a browser or through your own e-mail client. For real-time communication, Google Talk handles instant messages, voice, and video calls.

Thrifty businesses may be able to get by with the free edition of Google Calendar. Beyond basic features, it lets you share or subscribe to other calendars, which is crucial for collaboration. You can sync to many phones--important for offline mobile work--or just read data through a mobile Web browser.

Google Docs stores and edits files. Microsoft Office-compatible knock-offs include a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation tool. You can upload your current files to share and edit, or you can start from scratch. You may also set permissions by individual or by group, enabling others to view or edit files.

Additional tools can help businesses collaborate and communicate. Google Sites looks like a basic Web page builder, but you can use it to create portals for sharing company information or client-side details that only those people can access.

Google Apps Premier Edition

For $50 per year per user, you can upgrade Google's basic tools with business-grade features. Besides adding group administration capabilities to the service--so that your IT department (or person) can manage all users through a single interface--the premium Google services increase storage allotments and provide more-robust user features across the entire suite.

Google Mail jumps to 25GB. Google Calendar includes business-oriented tweaks to improve schedule collaboration, such as the ability to compare two peoples' calendars more easily to find workable meeting times. Google Groups gets a business-oriented twist, too, enabling your workers to communicate in a forum environment that's closed to the outside world.

In addition, paid Google Apps accounts can use your business's domain name, so e-mail messages can originate from an address "@yourbusiness.com" instead of "@gmail.com." Google provides better support and accountability to business customers, too; when the free, consumer version of Gmail goes down, it won't necessarily take the business customers down with it. (Google promises 99.9 percent uptime on its professional services.)

HyperOffice

Ideal for many small and medium-size businesses, HyperOffice balances the robust features and unification of IBM and Microsoft's tools while scaling down to suit companies that lack dedicated IT support. If you run into trouble, you can call HyperOffice and get help and support directly from someone at the company.

Well-produced tutorial videos appear throughout the new interface, to help you get started without IT support. If you need additional assistance, HyperOffice will walk you through the steps via Web conferencing.

HyperOffice's integrated collection of services matches or beats those that its competitors offer. Typically you'll access the service in a Web browser, and use it to manage contacts, messages, projects, files, and more. To share a file, for example, users can subscribe to certain coworkers' documents (as members of a team, say), so they'll be notified of all updates. Meeting histories and e-mail traffic can be related to specific projects as well, so a latecomer who joins the group can catch up on prior communication easily.

HyperOffice can sync to Outlook, and you can read e-mail through any IMAP or POP browser. That flexibility is especially useful for offline work and for transitioning to cloud-based apps without abandoning your current tools. You can mount the file-storage component on a Windows or Mac desktop, to support intuitive accessing of documents as if they were any local files. An online meeting tool lets you give presentations, too, but HyperOffice partners with Skype to offload chat features.

Full mobile-phone synchronization is coming in the next few months, for transferring mail, contacts, and files directly to handsets. Until then, the service identifies your mobile browser and displays a specially formatted version of the site on the go.

Project-management features round out HyperOffice's options. You can track workflow and build simple tools to automate some of processes, as you would with a spreadsheet or database. And you can set up custom Web pages to share data with--or accept input from--internal groups or external clients.

HyperOffice costs roughly $10 per month or less per user, with discounts as the number of users increases. The meeting service and other tools--such as e-mail campaigns--that go beyond simple collaboration cost extra.

Microsoft Business Productivity

Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite sets the highest bar for large businesses. Consider this cloud-based alternative, especially if you already use--and like--Exchange Server, SharePoint, and other Microsoft mainstays. Priced at $10 per user per month, BPOS converts those services into an online, hosted model, with browser-based access from any Mac or PC.

Lotus Live

Lotus Live has several strong points for bigger businesses, including Webcasting and online meeting tools. But even though Lotus Live and BPOS are managed for you, they can get technical; as a result, they are best suited for larger companies with some on-staff IT support to help users take advantage of the advanced features. Lotus Live's pricing structure is more convoluted than its competitors', as it takes an à la carte approach to service charges.

Zoho

Zoho follows Google's free-to-paid model, offering dozens of cloud-based apps. E-mail hosting, calendar, contact, and collaboration tools are available. But Zoho provides all kinds of extras--including invoicing and recruiting apps, CRM tools, human resources tools, and project management--that make Zoho a compelling option for companies that value a consolidated set of online tools.

Zoho demands less internal support than the Microsoft and IBM tools do. But Zoho can feel segmented, with each app typically living apart from the next. And like Lotus Live's, Zoho's pricing is à la carte.

Select the Right Service

Many small- and medium-size businesses can get by with Google's free collaboration tools. If you need project management or other comprehensive features, it may be time to step up to a premium service. Both Google Apps Premier Edition and HyperOffice hit a sweet spot between robustness and ease of use, but IBM Lotus Live, Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite, and Zoho all offer compelling tools, as well. When in doubt, don't hesitate to take the free trials for a spin. Each service give prospective customers a free trial period, and it's wise to take time to choose carefully the service that best matches your company's needs.

This story, "Work Smarter With Online Collaboration Tools" was originally published by PCWorld .

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