Six alternative tools for small business collaboration

Pack up Basecamp and put a sock in Yammer. These off-the-beaten-path cloud services offer more, and frequently at a fraction of the cost.

By Christopher Null, PC World |  Unified Communications, collaboration, Collaboration Software

For small businesses today, there's nothing that can't be done in the cloud. You could plunk down your cash for Basecamp, Yammer, and Google Docs like everyone else, but alternatives to these stalwarts abound. For something that does more, costs less--or both--check out these six Web-based tools, categorized based on their primary functionality.

General collaboration: Podio

Podio may still fly under the radar of such behemoths as Basecamp, but it's rapidly emerging as the go-to collaboration tool for a new generation of knowledge workers. Originally a Danish startup, Citrix acquired it last year, and the new features keep on coming.

Designed (like most collaboration systems) to eliminate excessive emailing, the structure is relatively simple: You invite employees into Podio's internal communication network, then create any number of "workspaces" in which they can collaborate. You can admit outsiders on a workspace-by-workspace basis, keeping them out of the broader employee network.

The centerpiece of Podio actually isn't its basic collaboration and project management system, but rather its innovative use of apps. Podio's built-in marketplace includes thousands of highly specialized apps for just about every type of management need: property management, managing an art studio, even structuring the due diligence process when acquiring a company. A couple of clicks, and you can transform Podio from a general project-management tool into a highly focused one.

Mobile apps for iPhone and Android.

Pricing: Free for up to 5 users, then $9 per user per month.

Workflow management: AffinityLive

For those of us in the service or consulting industry, simply managing active projects is only part of the puzzle. Keeping track of various clients, tracking your hours, collecting subcontractor timesheets, and managing retainers and invoicing all take up loads of time probably better spent doing other things.

To get you started, AffinityLive gathers your email, address books, and calendar (from Google, Office 365, or Exchange) and builds a central database of all your clients. From here you can manage the way you interact with them. Each client gets its own activity stream, and incoming messages are automatically imported into the tool. As contacts progress from prospects to active clients, they're updated and tracked in the system.

The free version doesn't do much. It's basically just a glorified contact database system. You'll need to pony up $29 per user, per month to incorporate your calendar, do workflow management (including timesheet reports), and access CRM activities like preparing and sending quotes. Higher-end features like managing service contracts, tracking retainer usage, and dealing with recurring or auto-renewing invoices are available in a version costing $59 per user, per month.

No mobile apps (but site is mobile-friendly).

Pricing: Free to $59 per user per month, depending on features desired.

Wiki building: Hackpad

Wiki-building services have a reputation for being complex, messy, and driven more by code jockeys than end users. With many services, initial configuration can be tedious to the point where the idea of starting a wiki is abandoned altogether, let alone creating and managing the database itself.

None of that is true with Hackpad. This dead-simple wiki manager can be mastered in a matter of minutes. Creating your wiki takes just a few steps (you get your own keyword.hackpad.com domain name). You can invite collaborators or leave it open to the public to edit. Click the (+) button to create a new document. Multiple users can edit in real time, and a sidebar on the left indicates who wrote what. It's all very intuitive, simple, and well organized. If you want to get fancy, you can use it to create checklists, drop in videos or pictures, or write code in a communal development environment.

Public sites created with Hackpad are free. Private wikis are free for 30 days or up to five users (whichever happens last). After that you pay a measly $2 per user per month--which also gets you access to premium support. If wikis are in your wheelhouse, it's an amazing value.

No mobile apps.

Pricing: Free for up to five users, then $2 per user per month.

Group chat and meetings: Mezzanine

For talking to your mom, Skype is fine, as is the occasional overseas call on your laptop or mobile device. But serious videoconferencing or telepresence is another thing altogether. If you have two offices on opposite sides of the country--or the globe--keeping the team working together can be a big challenge. This impacts many more small businesses than you'd think: Companies that rely on pockets of operating groups located all over the place are becoming increasingly common.

Oblong is the company that's bringing videoconferencing into the '10s. Imagine a bank of large-screen monitors in your conference room connected via the Internet to a similar bank at your satellite office. Full-screen video is beamed in both directions, and both sides can work on a shared whiteboard, present their own content, or share apps. All of this is controlled via the participants's mobile devices, a Web browser, or a spatially-aware "magic" wand that's a bit like a Nintendo Wii controller. Oblong is now working on a version of its system that works with nothing but hand gestures, but that still seems to be a few years off.

It's pretty cool stuff, and that's not surprising: The developer consulted on the seminal film Minority Report. To be sure, this kind of technology doesn't come cheap (pricing isn't disclosed, but it'll definitely cost more than a webcam). Still, while Mezzanine may not be in reach of every small business, those with serious distances to cross might find it worth at least getting a demo. For the rest of us, it's a tantalizing glimpse into what the future of collaboration is probably going to look like.

Mobile apps for iPhone and Android.

Pricing: Not disclosed.

Private social networking: Bitrix24

Social networking is popular enough that savvy businesses are considering a Facebook-like system for their employees. But it needs to be private. After all, you can't have them updating their resumes on LinkedIn all day when they should be doing their jobs.

Yammer has long been the standard for private social networks, but Bitrix24 is also worth a spin. It's got some extra features and may be less expensive, depending on how large your company is.

For starters, Bitrix24.looks a lot like your standard social network, offering each user a news feed/activity stream, private conversations (you're supposed to talk about work), messaging, and photo galleries. There's even a "like" button, which Bitrix24 uses to influence the way search results are organized. As a lighthearted motivation tool, you can set up badges that managers can hand out to workers in exchange for a job well done.

PacBitrix24, based in Eastern Europe, also has integrated project management features, so you can forgo a separate tool if you use it for workflow and to-do lists. All of this is included in the system for a flat monthly fee. Unlike most cloud-based services, Bitrix24 is all-you-can-eat for most installations: $99 per month for the Standard plan, or $199 for the Professional plan, which adds a records management and a scheduling system, among other tools.

Mobile apps for iPhone and Android.

Pricing: Free up to 12 users/5GB, then $99 to $199 a month.

Office suite: Microsoft Office 365

There's no shortage of cloud-based productivity apps, from the venerable Google Docs to HyperOffice to Zoho. Surprisingly, the most capable of the bunch might now be Microsoft Office 365, the Web-based version of the industry-standard Office software.

Office 365 works in tandem with the offline version of its software, but it's also fully capable in its browser-only incarnation. If you know how to use Office, you know how to use Office 365. As with buying Office for offline use, how much you pay is determined by how sophisticated your business needs are. The bare minimum, at $5 per month per user, gets you Web-only access to the system. Bumping up to $12.50 per month per user gets you desktop versions of most apps, plus Office Mobile for your smartphones, for a maximum of 25 users. At $15 per month you get Microsoft InfoPath added to the mix, plus support for businesses up to 300 employees in size.

Designed with multiple users in mind, users can work on a document simultaneously, and the included email handling tools bring Exchange-class administration to small businesses that wouldn't normally be able to afford a mail server. Sure, it's hard to describe anything from Microsoft as "alternative," but it's easily worth a look in an increasingly Google-run world.

Mobile apps for iPhone and Android.

Pricing: $5 to $15 per user per month.

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