Times are tough, but you can save your company some cash by taking advantage of many free applications and services to help you remain lean and competitive.

This includes many downloadable programs for your BlackBerry, iPhone, or Android smartphone as well as tools for PC productivity, such as online back-up options, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) software, and no-cost office suites.

Free apps are sought-after downloads today in business. It's not just because it makes sense to those watching their bottom line, but the apps are getting a lot more robust instead of simply covering the basics, says Scott Steinberg, publisher of Digital Trends. "You'd be surprise what you can find today when it comes to free applications -- and there's plenty of free apps to choose from for your smartphone, PC, or a cloud-computing solution that bridges the two," adds Steinberg.

Steinberg says he's most excited about the explosion in downloadable apps for smartphones. "The apps transform phones into notebook replacements, audio recorders, GPS navigation devices, note-taking devices, and even gaming getaways for those in need of an entertainment fix while traveling for business."

Speaking of travel, Chris Silva, an analyst at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester, the technology research company, says many of these free productivity tools have an inherent benefit compared to traditional desktop software: "On-the-go businesspersons want to be able to access their content wherever and whenever, and on any device -- and while Microsoft recently unveiled a 'cloud' component to [Microsoft] Office, we're finding people are turning to Google's established and free Gmail for e-mail, file storage, document sharing, and so on."

Caveat emptor

There's little dispute that cost-cutting measures are critical -- especially given the current state of the economy -- but there are a few things about free software that businesses should be aware of.

Silva reminds businesses that these free apps are still not as full-featured as paid versions. "Productivity suites might not have the 500-plus menus and tools built into Microsoft Office, for example, but most people don't venture outside of 'create, format, print and share' anyway," he says. "Many companies, especially small to mid-sized businesses, are finding these free alternatives to be good enough for their needs."

Silva also warns of two other possible downsides to free apps. "It's no secret there are occasional Gmail outages, which means you can't access your e-mail, or Skype congestion that can affect call quality, along with other issues associated with Internet-based solutions," he says. "Plus, there are always increased security risks in allowing your employees to use any kind of software they want. You'll need to take steps to educate employees about risks, about some company information that shouldn't be shared with Gmail or IM, and mitigate these with policies."

Best bets for free apps

If you're looking for completely free apps for your smartphone or PC, consider the following recommendations:

  • Skype -- Available for PCs and select smartphones (iPhone and Windows Mobile), Skype lets you make free phone calls to any other Skype user on the Internet via VoIP technology. PC users can also chat using video, swap files, or pay a few cents a minute for "Skype Out" calls to landlines and cell phones.
  • Gmail -- Google's free Web-based e-mail solution reliably keeps you in touch with others, regardless of the platform you're using it on. Benefits include loads of storage, little spam, contact and calendar management, and support for Google Talk between multiple devices.
  • OpenOffice.org -- Sun Microsystems's free Microsoft Office alternative offers a suite of productivity tools, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, and graphics. It supports multiple operating systems and has a portable version that runs off a USB key.
  • Documents To Go -- With a free version included on newer BlackBerry devices, this clever app suite allows for viewing and editing of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. It's usually bundled with PDF To Go, as well, supporting Adobe's popular Portable Document Format.
  • Zoho -- Free for individuals, Zoho's range of productivity and collaboration apps include Zoho Mail, Zoho Chat, Zoho CRM, Zoho Writer, Zoho Discussions, Zoho Sheet, Zoho Meeting, Zoho Show, Zoho Creator, Zoho Docs, Zoho Invoice, Zoho Notebook, Zoho Projects, Zoho Wiki, Zoho Reports, and others.
  • Windows Live SkyDrive -- Microsoft is offering up to 25GB of free online storage. Only a Windows ID is required (such as a Hotmail e-mail address) and this password-protected virtual drive can be accessed for virtually any online computer in the world. Some folders can be set up for sharing, while other are for your eyes only.
  • Remote Desktop Lite -- Use your iPhone or iPod touch to securely access a Windows XP Professional computer, anywhere on the planet. This software provides full access to your PC -- via Wi-Fi or EDGE -- as if you were in front of the machine you're accessing. At the time of writing this, Remote Desktop Lite is the no. 1 free business app at Apple's App Store.
  • Call Time Tracker by momentum -- As the name suggests, Redwood Technologies' free app for Blackberry helps business professionals account for their time in order to bill hours and recover expenses. Ideal for lawyers, consultants, salespeople, realtors and IT professionals, this app pops up at the end of calls and you can easily mark it as billable time.
  • Nice Office -- BlackBerry users can manage their e-mail, calendar, contacts, and tasks from this one free suite of tools. Nice Office securely also grants access to forms and documents, lets you record sales activity while on the go and automatically logs device activity, and provides a detailed report on mobile interactions with your contacts, including calls, messages, and appointments.
  • Google Maps -- While it doesn't provide audio-based turn-by-turn commands, Google Maps is a completely free and powerful tool for your smartphone that can help you find nearby establishments (such as restaurants, gas stations, or hotels), show overhead street views (even with satellite imagery), and give you accurate directions to a destination. It works via GPS or even cellular technology (though the latter isn't as accurate).