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.

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Staying connected

While we're used to public social networking services like Twitter and Facebook taking time away from our work, there's no denying that they can foster strong relationships with the people we friend or follow.

Private social networking applications, which can set up networks for small groups or teams, allow members to share files, Web pages and other information, as well as status updates so that everyone knows who's working on what and how far along they are. Used with the kind of fervor people bring to their nonwork social networking, they can be very useful tools for collaboration.

Present.ly

Intridea's Present.ly allows you to create a private Twitter-like update service in seconds, for free. You can set the privacy level by limiting users to people you invite or to people with a "yourcompany.com" e-mail address. Instead of Twitter's "Lists," Present.ly has "Groups," which let you lump together posts related to a specific project or team.

Present.ly supports the attachment of inline images, as well as documents and other files for easy sharing. Apps for the Palm Pre, Android phones, BlackBerries and the iPhone make it easy to read or post updates from anywhere.

Present.ly
Set up your own Twitter-like status stream using Present.ly's free service.

Wiggio

Wiggio incorporates e-mail, text messaging, and online chat and conferencing with a Facebook-like stream of Web updates and a shared calendar. Users can set up both online meetings and offline events. They can also invite other users, share files or send mass messages to all users or members of specific subgroups using e-mail, text or voice mail. A built-in file editor allows you to collaborate on documents and track revisions from other users.

Wiggio is free; the developers plan to add advertising in the future to support the site.

Wiggio
Wiggio gives you several ways to send notes to your team members.

Shareflow

Zenbe's Shareflow is a Facebook-like stream of posts and shared files. Users create a new "flow" for each topic or project and can upload and preview files, as well as comment back and forth. Each flow has its own unique e-mail address so posts or files can be added from outside the application itself.

Shareflow accounts are priced according to the amount of storage: Free accounts have 1GB of storage, and paid accounts start at $20 a month for 5GB.

Shareflow
Shareflow's "flows" mimic the live stream of familiar social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Google Wave: The next wave in collaboration?

The elephant in the collaboration room is Google Wave, which was launched last year to massive fanfare -- and more than a little confusion. As reviewer Preston Gralla put it in his October 2009 review, "Google Wave is one of those services that's nearly impossible to describe to those who haven't used it."

Google intends Wave to be the collaboration tool of the future, integrating document creation, e-mail and chat into a single interface. And Wave's open plug-in architecture allows third-party developers to add features like teleconferencing, mapping and polling.

Google Wave
Google Wave shows promise as a next-gen collaboration app.

Early users were enthusiastic about features such as real-time chat within the document itself, which allows full comment threads to be placed directly into the parts of a document that they relate to. Conference-goers have also had some success using Wave for real-time note-taking and sharing.

After months of invitation-only beta testing, Wave is now open to the public, and anyone can use it for free. Although Google promises that Wave is now faster, more stable and easier to use than in earlier releases, it is not yet refined or tested enough for critical use in business settings. Nevertheless, I'm mentioning it here because it could turn out to be a key collaboration tool down the road.

In the meantime, don't pass up the opportunity to make use of one -- or several -- of the other great collaboration tools in this roundup.

Logan Kugler is a frequent Computerworld contributor. His most recent article was "10 essential BlackBerry apps for travel."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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