Five ways to build your virtual office

Running a virtual business is easier (and cheaper) than ever -- if you have the right tools

2. Feed your suite tooth

You don't have to lug a laptop loaded down with a bloated office suite, or e-mail endless revisions of the same documents back and forth with your colleagues. Cloud applications such as Google Docs and Zoho Office turn your browser into a word processor, a spreadsheet, or other desktop software, and store your documents on the Web so they're accessible (and shareable) from anywhere. Google Docs serves up a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentations program. Zoho offers all that and a ton more: e-mail, project management, a wiki, a database creator, invoicing, Web conferencing, and other apps.

Admittedly, such online applications aren't as powerful as those that come with "Microsoft" on the box (or even the free ones from OpenOffice)...yet. But they are handy when we're away from our primary computers and we need to access files, or when we're working with people spread across different time zones. Google Docs can even send an e-mail alert if anyone has made changes to a file. Better yet, both Google and Zoho offer offline access. Download and install Google Gears, and you'll be able to open files you've created when a Net connection isn't available, and then sync them back up when you reconnect.

Want more? The Web is bursting with other collaborative apps, but most of them charge you for the privilege of using them. So far, Google Docs and Zoho Office are 100 per cent free.

3. Get a robotic personal assistant

We can't afford to hire an administrative assistant, which is why we use Highrise. Nominally an online CRM tool, 37signals' clever Web app does nearly everything a personal secretary might do except go out for coffee and pick up our dry cleaning.

Of course, the last thing you need is yet another address book to populate. Fortunately, Highrise makes the job easy: Just bcc e-mail messages to a special 'dropbox' address, and your recipient's address joins your contacts database automatically. You can then copy and paste their phone number, physical address, and other info at your leisure. (You can also upload V-cards or import whole address books from Outlook and other contact managers.)

But Highrise is really more about organizing your work life and keeping you on track. You can create a "case" for each project, associate contacts with each case, add notes and upload documents, share the case with colleagues, and add tasks for each person to perform. Highrise is free for two users and up to 250 contacts; paid plans that allow multiple users to swap files, collaborate on cases, and share thousands of contacts range from US$24 to $99 a month.

When we need full-on project management, we also use 37signals' Basecamp, which lets us create milestones, view them on a calendar, track successive versions of the same document, and do a whole lot more. You can manage one project with unlimited users for free; for multiple projects, prices start at US$24 a month.

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Dan Tynan

PC World

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