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Work Smarter

With increasingly sophisticated offerings, web applications are a smart choice for any business. You can collaborate, store and save from anywhere in the world. Not sure which web apps are right for you? Here are some of our favorites.

There's a web application out there with your company's name written all over it. In fact, there are probably several. An entire suite of online software, even. A spreadsheet calls out for collaboration. E-mail beckons you to receive, manage and archive from anywhere in the world. Even the whole product development process is looking to take the online leap. As a nimble, growing business, you're in a perfect position to take advantage of these maturing web applications to boost employee productivity, keep IT costs down and reach out to employees and clients around the globe.

Moving some of your business needs to the web doesn't have to mean slashing and burning your familiar ways of working. "[Web apps] offer a new and compelling way to work, but they also support how you work today," says Kevin Gough, senior product and marketing manager for Google Apps. Web apps can be introduced gradually to suit your needs. E-mail is the gateway application for many users. You start off with a personal web e-mail account and pretty soon you start looking for the same convenience and functionality from your business e-mail. Internet leaders like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo all offer free or low-cost business e-mail services. Yahoo's recent acquisition of advanced e-mail, messaging and calendar provider Zimbra bodes well for future offerings from the company.

BlueTie is another e-mail service tailored for the small- and midsize-business marketplace. The company's free service includes 5GB of e-mail and file storage for up to 20 users. The Pro package, which costs $4.99 per user per month, adds desirable extras like IMAP and POP3 support, IM, and Outlook sync. Calendar, contacts and file-sharing capabilities lend a collaborative aspect to the service. Glide, another contender in the space, acts like a desktop within a browser, with a full suite of applications including calendar, spreadsheets, document creation and editing, chat and e-mail. With web apps, entrepreneurs can choose to go with a single provider that does just about everything or pick and choose from available providers to put together their very own best-of-breed package.

Get It Together
Collaboration is the calling card of many business web applications. You can eliminate the need to e-mail files back and forth with incremental changes, instead sharing and editing documents, calendars, presentations and projects in real time. This is a boon for businesses with remote workers, mobile employees and clients, and suppliers. "Our Docs and Spreadsheets applications are most effective as collaboration tools," says Gough. This may mean trading off some of the advanced features of a desktop office suite, but you'll gain the ability to share and work on files in real time.

Some web services are geared toward collaboration from the get-go. The popular Basecamp application from 37Signals is a project management and collaboration tool that ties schedules, files, tasks and messages together to keep employees, business partners and customers on the same page. Near-Time is an industrial-strength wiki-based collaboration platform. Central Desktop offers a collection of work space and web meeting tools.

Office applications are some of the highest-profile web apps available. Google Apps, Microsoft Office LiveWorkspace, Thinkfree and Zoho are some of the big movers and shakers in this area. Office Live Workspace is geared more toward allowing document sharing among users who already use the traditional versions of Microsoft Office. Google Apps, Thinkfree and Zoho are good choices when you need to edit documents online as well. Some specialty contenders, like EditGrid for spreadsheets, are working to carve out office application niches. Fortunately for entrepreneurs, taking these new technologies for a test-drive won't cost a dime: They all have free versions available.

Some web companies are eager to handle your utility software needs. Carbonite wants to automatically back up your files and store them remotely. Picnik lets you edit your images without a desktop program. And Remember the Milk will help you manage your tasks and set up alerts in conjunction with your favorite online apps and your smartphone.

Many of these web apps are getting social with one another. Picnik cozies up with sites like Flickr, Photobucket and Picasa Web Albums. Facebook garnered a lot of attention last year by opening up its platform to third-party developers. Now many business-friendly applications are able to tie in to the popular social networking site. It's all part of a major online trend that will help create a more functional and useful online space for entrepreneurs to work in.

Online storage provider Box.net joined the cross-site fray with the arrival of its OpenBox platform last December. Now Box.net, which recently secured $6 million in funding, is more than just a place to squirrel your files away online for backup and easy access. "The concepts and philosophies behind Web 2.0 are enabling things like Zoho and Box.net to communicate with one another," says Aaron Levie, 23-year-old co-founder of Palo Alto, California, Box.net along with Dylan Smith, 22. Users can open and edit their Box.net documents with Zoho's online Writer application, attach digital signatures using EchoSign and view CAD files in a browser with Autodesk FreeWheel. Says Levie, "The services that let you actually manipulate your files are the most actively used services on OpenBox right now." And that's just the tip of the iceberg for business applications across the web.

New Ways of Working
The web isn't just trying to change the way we manage e-mail or share spreadsheets; there are some deeper groundswells of change. Ben Kaufman, 21, is aiming to revolutionize the way businesses handle all kinds of project development with Kluster, his startup in Burlington, Vermont. "It's a web-based platform where companies can come on and run projects for any decision-making activity that could be better served by asking a group of people," says Kaufman, whose site went live last month. Potential projects could include product development, product naming, ad campaign design, and branding and identity. Businesses of all sizes can take advantage of bringing the public, their customers or their own employees in on user-friendly and interactive projects.

Kluster bears some of the major Web 2.0 hallmarks. It includes social features, community involvement, its own virtual currency and voting system, viral marketing aspects and open-ended usage possibilities. "We want to be in the business of facilitating the development process and getting ideas out of the head and into the world," says Kaufman. Kluster is shaping up to be one of a new breed of web companies that help entrepreneurs improve their interactions with potential customers and move some of their more intangible business processes onto the web.

Just as business functions that used to live on desks and in desktop computers are moving to the internet, they're also finding their way back again. "A top priority for the team is making sure that we have an offline experience that rivals the online experience," says Gough, referring to Google Apps. Zoho was first out of the gate with full offline functionality for its word-processing program Zoho Writer. It uses the downloadable browser plug-in Google Gears to enable the program. Look for many more web apps taking advantage of Google Gears or Adobe AIR to build offline functionality into their offerings. This will help to take care of one of the biggest concerns surrounding web apps: what to do if your internet connection goes down.

If you're looking to see where business applications are heading, the consumer space is a good indicator. Online video sharing, blogging, social networking and social media all blossomed with a consumer focus that soon found business purposes. "The genesis of Google Apps was seeing some of our consumer technologies adopted in the business space," says Gough. An up-and-coming generation of employees and entrepreneurs is comfortable with working online and will be most productive when these sort of web tools are available to work with.

The maturation of business web apps may not spell immediate doom for regular desktop software, but it is starting to pose a serious challenge. Says Levie, "When you use these online apps, it's because you're saving a lot of time and putting lots of different people on the same page. It will be a natural process for companies to become more webcentric as they notice what the benefits are." Ultimately, entrepreneurs won't move to web apps because they're cool and cutting edge but because they help solve business problems, wipe out inefficiencies and reduce IT costs. It may be time for you to re-evaluate your software through the lens of the new web.

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This article was originally published in the April 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Work Smarter.

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