One of the easiest ways to collaborate with a business partner or colleague is to e-mail a document to them, but it is also one of the hardest habits to break too. And while e-mail is so pervasive and nearly instantaneous, the notion of serial collaboration--I work on the document, send it to you and you work on it and send it back--is clumsy. The attached documents can clog up e-mail systems or get rejected by filters. If more than two people are working on it, someone has to be in charge of resolving conflicts.
There are better ways and I will show you a few alternatives. To get around sending large files via e-mail, there are probably a dozen or more services like YouSendIt.com that allow you to upload the file and then just use e-mail to notify people where they can go to download it. But that isn't very satisfying, and a better option is to use something like Google Docs. Think of this as your shared hard drive in the cloud. Any Office format and PDF can be uploaded to Google's service, once you set up a Gmail account. The trouble is that you still have to edit them serially.
To get around this problem, take a look at Etherpad.com, which basically sets up a real-time Web page for your document. It assigns a random URL, and this is both good and bad. Good, because once you know the URL you can easily gain access to the document. Bad, because there isn't any security once you know the URL, so anyone can see what you are doing. But for quick real-time joint editing, it can't be beat. You have a chat window off to the side where you can share comments, and each author's changes is given a different highlight color, so you can quickly see their contributions. You can also roll back to previously saved versions, which is a very nice feature if you are trying to find something that was lost in the edit stream. And, it is free. (There is a similar service from Textflow.com for $100 per user per year.)
Something more secure, and more feature-laden, is Box.net. This started out as an online backup service (see my column here), but has evolved to something more. A team of people can share a collection of documents that is posted to their own Web page. You can do full-text searches across this collection, and have threaded discussions too. The cost is $15 per user per month. And unlike Etherpad, you can share all kinds of files, not just word processing documents.
The last service that I want to mention is Drop.io. This is like Box in that you can save a wide variety of files and do so securely, like Etherpad in that you have real-time chat. But there is plenty more going on here. The cool thing about Drop.io is that you have so many ways to get information in and out of the shared Web page. You can upload content via Web, e-mail, send via a text message, Facebook feeds, or even phone or fax it in. The phone calls are saved as audio files. You can try out the service for free. If you just want to create one "drop" or shared page that is $10 a year for 1 GB of space. There are other more expensive plans if you want more storage or features. Another service worth looking into is ContentCircles.com, which has a $10 a month plan for unlimited space.
All of these are great alternatives to sending that next file via e-mail, and can help you save time and reduce the frustrations of serial collaboration. Let me know what you think of the services, or if you have others that you use routinely.
David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.