Online collaboration on the cheap: 20 free and low-cost tools

From brainstorming apps to full-blown project managers, these inexpensive tools can help your team work together.

Collaboration is a key component to success in today's business world. Workforces are increasingly dispersed, with remote workers, offshore contractors and global partnerships making the job of coordinating your team's work harder than ever.

Fortunately, a wide range of services has emerged that take advantage of the Internet to tie vastly distributed teams together in ways that were unheard of a decade ago. And, of course, people in the same office can benefit from online collaboration too.

Even better, you don't need a huge IT budget to collaborate online. While enterprise programs like Microsoft SharePoint Server are still standard at large corporations, much of their functionality can be easily duplicated -- and even surpassed -- with online services that support activities like collective editing of documents in real time, brainstorming and long-term project management.

For small and midsize businesses, or teams with limited budgets, these apps can be deployed cheaply and quickly (some are even free), making them great go-to tools when it just isn't feasible to set up SharePoint or another enterprise app.

Below is a selection of great online applications to help make your team more productive and maybe even more creative. I'll look at some of the common tasks teams perform and discuss some affordable tools to help your team do them better. These aren't the only affordable options out there, but they are widely used, so you know they'll stand up to real-world use.

Brainstorming and mind mapping

Ideas are the lifeblood of any business, and the brainstorming session has rightfully become a mainstay of the business world. Being able to bounce ideas off other employees and to build on one another's thoughts can unleash incredible creativity, making a team truly more than the sum of its parts.

Traditional brainstorming revolves around the whiteboard, with a facilitator writing down each idea as it emerges. Online whiteboards offer the same kind of free-form discussion and idea capture, usually coupled with chat or voice conferencing.

Mind mapping is also proving to be a popular brainstorming tool. Mind maps employ free association to spin off ideas around a central concept, using a branch-and-leaf structure to clump related ideas together. This reveals relationships and structures as they emerge from the flow of ideas, often leading to new ideas that might not have come up otherwise.

Writeboard

Brought to you by 37signals, the maker of the popular Basecamp project management tool and creator of the open-source Web framework Rails, Writeboard is a free, no-frills, text-only blank space where you can record ideas. Collaboration doesn't come any simpler than this.

Writeboard
Writeboard's simple interface makes the quick capture of thoughts easy.

Choose a name for your board, select a password, enter an e-mail address, and you're ready to go -- no further registration required. To invite others to view the board or add comments, just enter their e-mail addresses and click the "Send invitation" button.

Writeboard provides few options, but it's great for capturing and fleshing out ideas on the fly. You can type in ideas, move them around and distinguish them with simple text formatting such as headers and numbered lists. Automatic revision-tracking lets you go back and recover anything that might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Show Document Shared Whiteboard

Show Document whiteboard
Show Document's whiteboards let you throw ideas together quickly using text and graphical elements.

HBRLabs' Show Document is a collection of free collaboration tools for Web meetings.

Its Shared Whiteboard app provides a much more feature-rich environment than Writeboard, with an integrated chat room and tools for basic drawing and highlighting. Intended for spontaneous brainstorming, whiteboards created on Show Document are not saved, but users can export them to PDF.

Twiddla

For intensely visual brainstorming, Twiddla offers a full range of drawing tools, as well as the ability to upload images to your whiteboard. Integrated voice chat and media sharing let you add and annotate images, documents or even Web sites while carrying on a conversation.

Twiddla
Twiddla's drawing and shapes tools provide a rich interface for brainstorming.

The basic service is free, while paid professional accounts (starting at $14 per month) allow you to save and share finished whiteboards and use SSL encryption for added security.

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