If you travel a lot and need to use a spreadsheet or database at different work sites, you now have a choice: you can lug around a notebook containing your apps and data files - or you can travel light, find a PC with an up-to-date browser, and use the free online tools offered by Halfbrain.com and Bitlocker.
These ad-supported Web sites offer free spreadsheets and databases, respectively, to anyone with a 4.0 (or later) version of Netscape or Internet Explorer. Granted, they aren't open-ended programming environments like Microsoft Excel and Access, but they do offer functionality that would cost hundreds of dollars in a shrink-wrapped application package.
Pre-configured templates range from quickie calculators and list generators to robust business tools. For example, Halfbrain.com's BrainMatter spreadsheet contains hundreds of pre-configured worksheets in mainstream business categories - profit-and-loss statements, budgets and other financial reports; business forms (for example, purchase orders and expense reports); and human-resource tools like timesheets and employee reviews. These worksheets contain most popular (and some exotic) spreadsheet functions, packaged in an interface so similar to Excel that you can skip training time.
Halfbrain's single sheets (no workbooks) were chosen to satisfy the needs of spreadsheet users, not hard-core macro slingers. You can customise BrainMatter to your heart's content, or upload your own Excel 2000 data and formulae (you must save them to HTML format first). You get unlimited on-site storage, too.
Database design is a bigger challenge, and Bitlocker's inventory of pre-configured databases is less impressive than Halfbrain's spreadsheet offerings. Nonetheless, you'll find templates for business contact management, inventory and pricing data, employee evaluations, and meeting or product schedules. The site also maintains consumer-oriented address books, photo albums, recipe and gift lists, and templates for tracking music, wine, or Beanie Baby collections. Like BrainMatter's templates, those in Bitlocker are easy to customise, and you can build your own database from scratch or import data in comma- or tab-delimited format. One quibble: between the navigational bars and the banner ad, the workspace is a bit cramped.
Bitlocker sets aside 25MB of storage space for your files. An ad-free, $US100-a-year premium service gives you 100MB of storage space and priority customer support.
Even on a dial-up connection, both sites are zippy. In fact, Halfbrain.com is exceptionally fast, thanks to its use of Dynamic HTML. Both resources pledge to protect your data and promise not to hassle you with marketing pitches unless you permit it. If you're not used to performing routine business tasks online, leaving your desktop package may be unwise. But for easy access to basic spreadsheets or databases wherever you go - and insurance against software obsolescence - these free office apps are worth a try.