Specialty Android apps for business users

An Android smartphone can do a lot more than play games and surf the Web. InfoWorld presents the apps that serious Fandroids should know about

Android smartphones are now the market leaders in terms of mobile sales, and more and more are finding their way into business, following the footsteps of the iPhone. Android fans have watched in the last year as the iPhone slowly shifted its perception to become the new corporate mobile standard -- but you don't have to just watch. These 40 apps show that the Android platform can play a serious role in business, too.

[ See also: Android security: Six tips to protect your Google phone ]

The companion article "The right office apps for the Android at work" compares the basic Office-like tools you need to get work done. But beyond word processing and spreadsheets lies a whole world of applications that can turn your Android smartphone into a powerful business machine.

[ Read JR Raphael's picks for best Android productivity boosters. | Android innovators: See the devices that are leading the new generation. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

What follows is a category-by-category guide to the best Android specialty apps for business users. Whether you're after email management or mind-mapping, I've tracked down a top-notch tool that'll get the job done. It's true that more business apps are available -- and in more categories -- for iPhones and iPads than for Android devices, but it's also true that business Android users have a solid set of app options.

Click the name of any app I mention to load its Web page from the Android Market; from there, you can read user reviews, get additional details, and even install the program over the air to your Android smartphone.

Got a favorite specialty app I didn't include? Share the tip; just leave your recommendation in the comments section below.

The categories are:

Email and calendar Perhaps the most common tool for managing business-based email on Google's Android OS is Nitrodesk's $20 Exchange for Android (formerly called Touchdown). The app allows for secure connections between your Android smartphone and your company's Microsoft Exchange email server. It features a wide range of security options, including data encryption and remote wiping of corporate email data. The program can also be mass-deployed by administrators, making it one of the most IT-friendly solutions available.

Email aside, a service called CompanionLink offers a range of methods for synchronizing your contacts, calendar, tasks, and notes between a PC and your Android smartphone. CompanionLink works with Microsoft Outlook, IBM Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise, and a handful of other common desktop utilities. It can sync your data via Wi-Fi, a direct USB connection, or over the Internet by linking up directly to your Google account. CompanionLink costs $40 for the Outlook edition and $70 for the Lotus Notes or GroupWise version. Note that the Google sync option will send larger businesses' IT groups into fits, as it circumvents their security controls by forwarding email and other data to the unsecured Google service; for them, CompanionLink offers a secure cloud-based forwarding server product instead for $10 per user per month.

If your Outlook calendar is all you need to keep in sync, Google's own free Calendar Sync program may be the tool for you. Google Calendar Sync runs on your PC -- but not Mac -- and, as its name suggests, provides an ongoing two-way sync between your Outlook calendar and your Google Calendar (which is by default linked to your Android smartphone). The program is free to download and use. Like CompanionLink, though, its use will cause security conniptions at many organizations.

Regardless of what synchronization tool you do or don't use, you may want an Android widget to provide easy access to your calendar from your smartphone's home screen. François Delandes' €1.50 Pure Calendar widget is a highly customizable app that puts your upcoming events and appointments right at your fingertips. You can select from different sizes and configure the widget's look to your liking. You can also actively scroll through your calendar within the widget if you use it with an advanced launcher like ADW or LauncherPro.

Notes and lists Catch.com's free Catch Notes is a great tool for on-the-go note-taking and organization. Catch provides an easy-to-use interface for jotting down messages and reminders: You can tap out a note on your smartphone's keyboard, speak a note via Android's built-in voice recognition, record an audio note to be saved for future playback, or capture a visual note via your smartphone's camera. All of your notes are saved into the app and can be synced to the Web and other devices using your Google account or an account with Catch.com (which costs $5 per month).

A popular note-taking alternative is Evernote, which performs most of the same functions as Catch but requires an Evernote-specific account to function (free for individuals and $5 per user per month for companies). By contrast, an account on Catch is needed only if you want to enable syncing. Personally, I prefer the Catch interface, but both apps are excellent and fairly well matched in their capabilities.

Want to create a quick note to yourself without all the bells and whistles? Try Google's Voice Actions for Android, available free for any smartphone running Android 2.2 or higher. With Voice Actions, you can press and hold your smartphone's Search button and speak the words "note to self" followed by your message. Your smartphone will instantly transcribe the message and send it to you in an email.

If you're looking to make more traditional lists, Todoroo's Astrid Task/Todo List is a fine way to get the job done. Available as a free download, Astrid lets you create multiple to-do lists and check off tasks as you complete them. You can set individual task reminders, sync your tasks with Google Tasks, and automatically create new Google Calendar events for items as you add them. An optional $4 Power Pack gives you widgets, voice reminders, and other features.

Remember the Milk is another popular and full-featured list-making utility for Android. At its current cost, however -- $25 per year -- I can't recommend it; that price simply isn't competitive with other comparable options available for free or for one-time fees.

Databases DDH Software's $10 HanDBase Database Manager gives you the ability to create and edit work-oriented databases from your smartphone screen.

Glen Hughes's $3 Remote DB app enables SQL access from your Android device. It supports Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Sybase database environments.

Mind-mapping and whiteboarding Need to do some mind-mapping on the go? Check out Kinesthetic's €2 Thinking Space Pro. The app gives you everything you need to create visual maps for your thoughts and plans. It integrates with several desktop-based mind-mapping programs, including Freemind, Xmind, and MindManager. Plus, it lets you embed live hyperlinks in your maps and create both folders and tags; there's also a free, ad-supported version.

When it comes to whiteboarding, the aptly named Whiteboard app from Matt M is as simple as it gets. The free utility gives you a blank surface on which you can sketch out ideas, using your finger as the marker. Whiteboard includes a home screen widget and several options for customization.

For a collaborative whiteboarding experience, grab Group Technologies' Groupboard. The free version of the app allows you to share your whiteboarding space with up to five other users, who can be connected via the Android app, its iOS counterpart, or the Groupboard.com website. To share with more than 5 users, Group Technologies offers a 15-user license for $10 a month and a 50-user license for $20 a month.

Conferencing Thanks to Android's tight integration with Google Voice, on-the-go conference calls are a cinch. Just set up a free Google Voice account and download the free Google Voice app to your smartphone. Then, whenever you need to initiate a conference call, ask the call participants to dial in to your Google Voice number. As each new call comes in, the system will give you an option to conference it with the other calls. (Note: The Call Screening option in your Google Voice settings needs to be enabled for this conferencing option to work.)

You can join Web-based conferences held via Cisco WebEx or Fuze Meeting by downloading the official app for either service. Both apps are free, though you'll need to have an account with the service to use its application.

File management and printing Unlike iOS, Android makes it possible to use your smartphone as a hard drive and freely browse its file system. You can always connect your smartphone to your PC via a USB cable to do this from your desktop, but for mobile-based file management, you'll need an app like Metago's $4 Astro Pro. Astro Pro lets you navigate through your smartphone's internal and external storage, moving, copying, and sharing files with a couple of quick taps. (There's also a free, ad-supported version.)

Google's free Google Cloud Print tool lets you connect your office printer to the cloud using your networked PC as a waystation, then wirelessly print emails and documents straight from your smartphone. Cloud Print works only with Windows-based PCs, though Google says Mac and Linux support will become available.

Cloud storage and FTP For cloud-based storage and easy PC-to-smartphone (and smartphone-to-PC) file transfers, try Dropbox or Box.net. Both give you a free account for storing your stuff -- Dropbox offers 2GB of storage for free, while Box.net provides 5GB -- and both include a simple Android app that lets you access stored files from your smartphone. Each app provides the ability to upload and download files throughout the operating system. You can configure uploaded files to be private or shared with selected users.

Lysesoft's AndFTP is a free app for making FTP connections from your Android smartphone. It provides all the basic FTP functions: uploading, downloading, opening files, renaming files, changing permissions, and so on.

To turn your smartphone itself into a functioning FTP server, install Dave Revell's SwiFTP FTP Server. The free utility assigns you a working URL that can be reached over Wi-Fi from any PC-based FTP client, allowing you to wirelessly access your smartphone's file system to manage and transfer files. But note that Revell, a graduate student, says he can't afford to keep the SwiFTP servers running and is looking for someone to take over both the servers and the app's code.

Prefer a more graphical interface? Check out NextApp's $3 WebSharing File/Media Sync. The program provides you with a URL that, when typed into your PC's browser, brings up a Windows-like visual directory of your smartphone's storage. You can transfer files individually or in bulk, stream music from your smartphone to your computer, and view and play stored photos and videos. There's also a free version that includes only the basic file-transferring functionality.

Remote access Both SoftwareForMe's $10 PhoneMyPC and LogMeIn's $30 LogMeIn Ignition provide full remote access to a PC from your Android smartphone, allowing you to control your computer, run programs, and manipulate files as if you were sitting in front of your monitor.

If you're using Citrix-enabled servers, look for Citrix Systems' free Citrix Receiver application. It lets you sign in to your system from your smartphone and access all of your programs and documents.

For remote monitoring of server status, try bSoft's bMonitor Server Monitor or Sebastian Serafin's Server Monitor. Both are free.

Business travel Expensify.com's free Expensify app gives you everything you need to manage expenses while out and about: It offers simple forms for entering expenses, photographing receipts and invoices, and syncing the data to your account at Expensify.com. (Accounts are free for individuals and cost $5 per month per user for companies.)

For even more expense-tracking features, take a peek at ProOnGo's ProOnGo Expense. It can track your mileage using your smartphone's GPS, track time spent with clients, and export all of your data to QuickBooks or to your own custom expense template. ProOnGo charges per user per month, with plans ranging from $27 for 5 users to $290 for 100 users.

Square, created by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, lets you accept credit card payments with your Android smartphone. You'll be sent a special card reader when you sign up for an account. Both the reader and the app are free to use, but Square charges a 2.75% fee from each transaction.

Get your travel organized with TripIt. Once you've set up a free account, you just forward all your travel confirmations -- airline plans, hotel bookings, you name it -- to an email address set up for you at tripit.com. The service reads all your plans and translates them into easy-to-follow itineraries, all of which are available within the Android app.

FlightView's $1 FlightView Flight Tracker is a must-have for any frequent flyer. The app gives you real-time status updates on your flights and can even send you alerts when something changes. A widget lets you keep the info right on your home screen, too.

Consistently named one of the best apps for Android, Edward Kim's $4 Car Locator provides a simple way to save your car's location and navigate back to it later.

RideCharge's free Taxi Magic app helps you find a nearby cab, book a ride, and track your cab's location. It works all throughout the United States.

If your travels take you to a foreign land, Google's free Google Translate app could come in incredibly handy. The program provides instant translations between more than 50 languages and offers voice-based input. Capice?

Business miscellany Marc Stogalitis and Mimi Sun's free Gmote lets you use your Android smartphone as a remote control for your PC-based PowerPoint presentations.

For complex business calculations, try Edward Falk's $5 RpnCalc Financial calculator.

Make your smartphone especially intelligent with Probeez's $4 Setting Profiles. The app lets you set custom profiles for your device that can be activated based on your location, the time of day, proximity to events on your calendar, and a slew of other conditions. The profiles can completely control your smartphone's behavior, changing everything from ringer sound and volume to Wi-Fi settings, screen brightness, and even your wallpaper.

Track all of your shipments with Timo Berhmann's free Parcels app. The program supports FedEx, UPS, U.S. Postal Service, DHL, and other mailing services. It can track continuously in the background with the option to activate notifications whenever a package's status changes.

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This story, "Specialty Android apps for business users" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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