Collaborate Using Online Tools

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Recap: Basics of the online collaboration services

If you're looking to integrate project management and collaboration software into your business, you might want to consider one of these services for your team. And if you're seeking an alternative to Microsoft's traditional desktop productivity applications, you'll find these to be great options. But even if you already use some Microsoft software, these services are a great way to add some discipline and structure to your collaboration processes without a huge up-front investment.

Following is a rundown of the services we've considered here:

37signals Basecamp
Highlights: Boasts one of the simplest interfaces of the services, and is the only one to include a formal time-tracking mechanism. Like Google, its parent developer has also created several other applications that can be integrated with the service, including the Highrise customer relationship management tool and Campfire, a group chat service that is compatible with the Apple iPhone.
Platform support: Cross-platform, including Safari 2 or higher.
Pricing: $25 per month for up to 15 projects and 5 gigabytes of storage; $49 per month for 35 projects and 10GB; and $149 per month (maximum) for unlimited projects and 50GB.

Central Desktop
Highlights: Offers a robust plug-in for online meetings and conference sessions, as well as encryption to secure e-mail alerts and status updates. Another key differentiator is that Central Desktop supports communication via your regular e-mail package (Outlook, Gmail, or even e-mail sent on a BlackBerry or Treo). That means you can send an update to the group that will be recorded within the appropriate workspace without even signing in.
Platform support: Cross-platform. One caveat: It currently does not support Safari.
Pricing: Starts at $25 per month for three workspaces, 10 users and 500MB of storage; $99 per month for a company plan that includes up to 25 internal members and 250 external users.

Google Sites
: As the name suggests, Google treats the creation of a team project page as if you're publishing an Internet or intranet site. Google Sites is part of the Google Apps family, and it encompasses features of Google Calendar and Google Documents. Templates let you quickly build out private pages where your designated team can comment and share. One drawback is that the different functions still seem very stand-alone.
Platform support: Cross-platform and cross-browser compatible.
Pricing: Free up to 6.6GB; $50 per user per year up to 25GB per account. You need to subscribe to get single-sign-on security features or features that let you integrate the service with your existing business applications.

Highlights: HyperOffice spends a lot of energy on its Web site positioning itself as a competitive option to Microsoft SharePoint. It is tightly integrated with Outlook and supports offline work (if you're on a plane, for instance). Those of you with formal project management backgrounds may be interested to know HyperOffice supports output to Gantt charts. An online meeting capability is currently under development.
Platform support: Cross-platform and cross-browser compatible.
Pricing: One-time setup of fee of $50; after that, a five-user base package is $45 per month, plus $10 for additional users.

Highlights: Although it doesn't include an online meeting feature, the service offers live chat and instant messaging functions. It allows for a great deal of customization, for both the dashboard and group workflows. Technology called OpenSosius allows third parties to build additional functions and applications that can be plugged into the main service.
Platform support: Cross-platform.
Pricing: Free up to 200MB of information.

Highlights: Strictly a free whiteboard tool for marking up very visual sorts of files, such as graphics, photos, or even Web sites. This is a grassroots application that won the Technical Achievement award at this year's South by Southwest festival.
Platform support: The service describes itself as "browser-agnostic."
Pricing: Free.

Highlights: Mainly focused on the interactive part of collaboration, supporting various online conferences and seminar formats, including reviews and annotations. Meeting content can be output to JPEG or PowerPoint formats if desired.
Platform support: Cross-platform. Requires Adobe Flash 9.
Pricing: The Vyew service is free for up to 20 participants, if you're willing to tolerate advertising. Otherwise, it costs about $7 per month for up to 25 participants (five of whom are not subjected to ads) or $14 per month for up to 45 participants (15 will have an ad-free experience).

Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and strategic communications consultant who has covered technology for more than 18 years.

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