Windows Live SkyDrive
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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.
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.
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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.