When it came to household duties, I was brought up on Pine-Sol.
If the floor needed to be mopped, it was water and Pine-Sol. If the room was a bit musty, a bit of Pine-Sol on a moist rag made it fresh again. If the carpet got stained, Pine-Sol would magically clear it up. For many businesses, Excel is like Pine-Sol.
I was recently lamenting with a technology executive how Microsoft Excel--and Microsoft executives acknowledge this as well--is the biggest competitor to many business software applications. If you need an inventory list, staff database, customer contacts or payroll information, Excel is used. Businesses big and small all around the country use Excel.
Excel is also the biggest competitive threat to Intuit's QuickBooks, Sage's PeachTree and Microsoft Accounting. Companies that don't use accounting software tend to use Excel for their accounting. Excel is fine for adding numbers together and creating charts, but most people really need a database--they just don't know it, let alone know how to properly use one.
The three biggest software database solutions are Microsoft Access, File Maker Pro and Alpha Software. These software packages are powerful, feature-rich and robust.
For many smaller businesses--especially those that need to get online quickly with minimal help--online database solutions can help. These include Intuit's QuickBase, Trackvia , Dabble DB and Google Docs.
Intuit's QuickBase is the most powerful of the bunch. For workgroups or businesses that want to create powerful online applications--and especially those that have a "techie" on staff--QuickBase enables you or your programmer to create online applications that could rival many desktop applications. Compared to the other databases, it does have a higher learning curve and requires a bit of HTML programming experience to create a web form for data entry.
DabbleDB and Trackvia are similar, but with different strengths. They are designed to quickly and easily create databases and forms so that anyone can enter information.
Google Docs does not have nearly the functionality of any of these tools. But if you want a simple, fast and free way to enable people to enter data into a form and populate a spreadsheet, Google Docs is a decent starting point. Of course if you need to share a spreadsheet, Google is a fast and easy option as well.
Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.