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

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

Document creation, review and annotation

Online tools to help you collaborate on documents and presentations have evolved drastically in the past several years, making it easy for you and your partners to work side by side, even with half the globe between you.

For documents that evolve over time with new information, wikis are incredibly useful. Simple editing tools let you and other team members add new information, and automatic revision tracking makes it easy to roll back to previous versions.

For more advanced tasks, online word processors, spreadsheets and presentation tools make creating traditional office documents collaboratively as easy as using Microsoft Office. It's even possible for several people to work on a single document at the same time.

Finally, if you're less concerned with letting others create, edit or add to documents and more concerned with making it easy for several people to review and comment on materials, a reviewing service such as TextFlow or ReviewBasics might be a better option than a wiki or online office suite.

Wikidot and Wikispaces

There are hundreds of hosted wiki services available; two of my favorites are Wikidot and Tangient's Wikispaces. Wikidot's WYSIWYG interface makes editing a breeze even for nontechnical users, while Wikispaces' ability to export HTML pages and PDFs makes it well suited to generating documentation for wide distribution.

Both offer basic free (ad-supported) hosted wikis as well as affordable premium plans (from $50 a year) with features such as invitation-only access, custom themes, file hosting and the ability to map your own domain name to your wiki.

Google Docs, Zoho and Adobe Acrobat.com

These free online office suites are among the most fully developed Web applications out there, featuring full-fledged word processors, presentation editors and spreadsheets that support Microsoft Office formats. (The Acrobat.com Tables app combines some functions of both a spreadsheet and a database.)

Each service makes it easy to invite others to participate and grant them permission to edit, comment on and/or review the documents you've shared with them.

All three of these services allow real-time collaboration in word processing documents and spreadsheets so that multiple people can edit a file simultaneously. In Google's services, color-coded cursors or spreadsheet cells indicate who is working on what. Zoho locks the paragraph or cell each person is on so that changes don't overlap. Google Docs and Zoho both offer an integrated chat "sidebar" so you can converse with your collaborators while you work.

Acrobat.com has the weakest real-time capabilities. In Buzzword, the word processor, the whole document is locked until the editing collaborator saves his or her changes, while Tables allows multiple people to work in the same cell but keeps only the changes made by the person with the highest permissions level (the document's "author"). Further, users cannot chat in the interface where they're editing, though a ConnectNow conference in a separate tab might be adequate.

None of these suites allows real-time editing of presentations, though multiple people can view a presentation at the same time while one person edits it.

Zoho offers a wide variety of productivity and business tools beyond the Big Three office apps, as does Google under its Google Apps service.

It's worth noting that Microsoft will be releasing its own online office suite, called Office Web Apps, this year, but it's too soon to tell how polished its collaboration features will be.

TextFlow

TextFlow from Nordic River Software simplifies the process of integrating changes into Word documents by combining several versions of the same document into one and highlighting the differences so you can easily choose among them.

TextFlow is available in an online version that integrates with the cloud-based file storage service Box.net or with Google Apps. (It's also available as a stand-alone desktop application for $99.)

Using TextFlow with a Box.net account means you can upload a document there; share it with your collaborators, who can edit the document online using Box.net's integrated editor (a slightly stripped-down version of Zoho Writer); and then combine all their edits directly from your Box.net account. TextFlow for Box.net is $9.95 per month; Box.net offers free 1GB accounts.

The Google Apps version works the same way but is limited to paid Premier Edition users who have access to the Google Marketplace. A free account allows up to 10 uses per month; more than that is $29 a month.

Expect to see more TextFlow versions in the future -- Nordic River says it's committed to integrating with every available word-processing tool.

ReviewBasics

SharpStyle Labs' ReviewBasics lets users post a variety of content types -- documents, presentations, images, videos, PDF files and more -- and solicit others' feedback. Commenters can add sticky-note-like "callouts," highlighting and other annotations to any content uploaded to ReviewBasics. All accounts are free at the moment and come with 25MB of storage space; the company plans to offer premium accounts in the future.

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Logan Kugler

Computerworld (US)
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