Simple online database collaboration

Forget e-mailing attachments. Specialized services make sharing spreadsheets easy.

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Pricing and support

When you decide on the particular service, it pays to read the pricing fine print. There are discounts for annual subscriptions on most services, and some, such as Smartsheet, offer additional discounts for non-profit and educational institutions. All of these services have 14-day or 30-day free trials to get started, so you can get a feel of what is involved in manipulating your data and how easy it is to make changes, produce reports, and receive notifications.

The downside is that some of these services can be pricey, as you add collaborators. Each service has different ways to count actual "users". For example, if you want to jointly edit the same spreadsheet with two others -- that usually counts as a three-user license. But if you want others to just view your data but not change it, these others usually don't consume additional licenses. Smartsheet doesn't have any user limitations, which is great if you are going to publish it for wide use around your corporation. These services can also get expensive if you need to attach files to particular cells in your database, as you can see from the table above.

Customer support can be extra too. TrackVia, HyperBase, and QuickBase all include phone support in their offerings, and TrackVia actually emails you automatically with the name and phone number of an account rep should you need additional help. Smartsheet offers support on its premium plans that begin at $50 a month, although you probably won't need it because it has copious help pop-up screens and suggestions for first-time users. The others offer minimal support.

Distinguishing features

Let's review each service and touch on some of their distinguishing features. First is how they notify you of changes to your file's content. Some services give you more control over how they will email you when one of your collaborators has made changes. Another feature is how they can publish your data, if you want to invite others to view it. While this throws all hope of security to the winds, for less secure information it is a great way to start a collaboration process. Some can design very sophisticated reports, others show you your data in the familiar grid layout that Excel uses.

Another thing to look for is how each service loads your data: with some, you can upload an Excel file from your hard drive, while with others you have to either import a comma separated file or manually cut and paste your data from your spreadsheet. Why is this important? If you have more than a simple table of columns and rows, cut and paste will probably not work and you will have some cleanup to do after the import.

Finally, there is the consideration of how much control they give you over the look and feel of your data. Some of the services, such as Smartsheet, TrackVia and QuickBase have dozens of pre-built templates to help you get started with organizing your data, such as client contacts, issue tracking, or expense reports. The others you are left to be your own designer.

One caveat: Web services are constantly being changed, especially prices, as the vendors tweak their offerings. This analysis is based on what we saw in mid-March 2010, so do spend some of your own time checking out particular features that are deal-makers or breakers for you. We also tried to test each service in a wide variety of browsers on both Windows and Mac operating systems, but again, things quickly change in that department too.

Next page: SpreadsheetLive

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