When you're the new kid in town, you'd better get along with the powers that be. For the growing cadre of online database managers--like those from Blist, WebEx and Zoho--that means making it easy for customers to import existing data files and then share their database creations with others.
It's not a trivial challenge. We all have vast stores of duplicative data in existing desktop software, and there's already a highly flexible competitor with a head start. Intuit's QuickBase has easy import/export, a large library of database designs and rich features that have been fine-tuned over many years.
QuickBase is the standard for collaborative databases, which have a subtly different mission than the robust, relational data archiving of established desktop alternatives like Microsoft Office Access. Online databases are oriented particularly toward on-the-fly information sharing among members of an ad hoc workgroup who've assembled to attack a project for a couple of months, then reconfigure to attack another. Approachability is an absolute must for businesspeople with data-sharing challenges.
Zoho has a data trio--Planner, Creator 2.0 and DB & Reports--that shows just how much ground database management covers. Zoho Planner is the online equivalent of a phone/PDA--a place to keep contacts, to-dos, reminders, notes, etc. Zoho Creator is a more versatile data repository with data entry forms and list views (like a spreadsheet) robust enough to let you create your own applications or database surfaces--what we civilians consider "the database." Zoho DB is the better tool for those with really big relational database jobs--blending advanced reports with visual data analysis for enterprise jobs like market research or new product and pricing comparisons.
All three are free and very good at importing and exporting rows and columns of text and spreadsheet formats. They also export to formats that let you integrate your database into your web page. All are easy to learn and use but lack the degree of functionality that database mavens want. They aren't friendly to browsers other than Internet Explorer, either. But they're bound to improve.
WebEx's WebOffice Workgroup suite takes a slightly different approach--one that yields a better fit and finish and tighter integration, but less flexibility. Designed to support WebEx's online meeting offerings, the suite is a collection of tools on an intranet site created specifically for your workgroup. There's the usual document management, group calendaring and other productivity features. You create your own databases or fall back on ready-made templates for contact lists, CRM, or tracking sales, assets, time sheets, what have you. WebOffice also wants you to use Internet Explorer and, like traditional data managers, it's pretty finicky about data import. Export, on the other hand, is fine. WebOffice starts at $60 per month for up to five users, with additional pricing for more features.
The newest entrant, Blist, is still in beta but is more focused on databases than the above suites are. It imports text and spreadsheet data into a very bloggish but eye-pleasing Web 2.0 motif and isn't shy about declaring itself "the world's easiest database." But even before the pudding has fully cooled, it delivers extreme ease of data import/export and a rich, flexible and intuitive set of management tools, all for $99.95 a month for 10 users. Simplicity is really hard to pull off, but Blist has hit the target. It's a great example of what the new paradigm is all about: truly easy information sharing for non-technical businesspeople.
Not that these are the only data managers you'll ever need or that they're replacements for relational and other types of database software, but they do signal a new era of information collaboration.Mike Hogan (email@example.com) is Entrepreneur's technology editor.