Working with others real-time via the Internet brings remote staff, contractors, and clients into the fold, making it almost like being right there in the office with whoever you're working with. However, until recently, access to software and networking capabilities that make this possible was an expense limited to larger companies.

The new crop of collaboration tools now on the Internet include some low cost offerings, as well as some completely free alternatives, bringing collaboration tools within reach of the smallest businesses, even solo contractors.

 "It makes the job of working with designers a much easier prospect," says Evan Skopp, vice president of sales and marketing for Seymour Duncan, a maker of electric guitar pickups and accessories, "not to mention reducing the time involved from first sketch to finished design."

Speeding up productivity

While Seymour Duncan doesn't use collaboration tools internally, but the designers and contractors he deals with use them, such as Greg Chambers of Chambers Design Group in Santa Barbara, Calif. Chambers tool of choice is GoToMeeting. "The cost is negligible compared to the benefits," says Chambers. "At $350 for a one year license, GoToMeeting is worth every penny."

GoToMeeting is one of a number of fee-based collaboration services. Others offered as a for-pay solution include Octopz, and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. The new Apple OSX 10.5, Leopard, offers desktop sharing through the Internet.

Using collaboration tools can save significant amounts of money and increase production. While many business products are fee based, some of the best ones are free. When you're trying to make ends meet as a solo or very small business, you can't easily spring for extras, so free is a very welcome word. While most offer the ability to pay a fee to eliminate ads or gives expanded capabilities, you can get a ton of good work done just by using the basic free versions. Here are some of the free options:

  • Zoho offers the most complete and comprehensive collection of online office applications and collaboration features. Besides the usual word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tools, it also includes the ability to create a wiki, whiteboard, planner, Web and voice conferencing, chat, and even database creation and management -- all for free. Zoho also offers, for a fee, a complete customer relationship management (CRM) package as well as projects management software, both of which you can try out on a limited basis free of charge. But, being free, is it a secure solution? "Privacy protection is our number one concern," says Ian Wenig, Zoho Director of Business Development. "We're presently focusing on individuals and [small business] needs, and later we'll be adding even more security options, like user generated remote backup of all their Zoho data."
    Wenig said Zoho keeps the security of their users' data as a top priority, using top level Tier 4 data center for their data, the same as Google and Microsoft. With multiple levels of redundancy, they do daily backups of all data, and run full firewall, anti-spam, anti-hacking, and anti-virus applications. For transferring data to and from the users, Zoho uses HTTPS encryption, making data transfers secure.
  • Another new collaboration system is Yugma, which offers the ability to do full desktop sharing, no matter what the application, software, or operating system being used. You can set up a completely free Web conference with up to 10 users, share graphics, documents, even video, in a real-time meeting environment.
  • Google is one of the top collaboration offerings, with it's Google Documents & Spreadsheets. The smooth integration with Google's other applications makes it an attractive choice for small and mid-sized business collaborators.
  • Other companies offering collaborative tools include Vyew, which allows a user to host live conferences with whiteboard, webcam, and push-to-talk VoIP capabilities; Collanos, calling itself a "shared workplace," providing documents-oriented collaboration; and ScribLink, a free digital whiteboard with the ability to upload graphics.

Another aspect of Internet based collaboration tools is their cross-platform capabilities. Any document you work on in all these collaboration tool sets is saved in their respective company servers, and can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet. You can start a conference or even a document on one operating system -- say, an Apple computer -- and invite others in with a PC or Linux computer. The document will look the same, with most of the same functionality as commercial software. This is a big consideration.