Best Web Applications for Business

If you use a computer for your business, you’ve probably got a few desktop applications – that is, programs you installed on your own computer using a CD or DVD – that you do most of your work in every day. Millions of us use Microsoft Office to create letters, give presentations and crunch sales numbers. Thousands of businesses use “off-the-shelf” accounting software like QuickBooks to handle their accounting. Email programs like Microsoft Outlook handle the communication of countless messages every day. You might be so dependent on these programs that you can’t imagine how you’d live without them.

Get ready to live without them.

Well, at least to live without the ones that come in a box and live on your hard drive. Software is rapidly moving to the web. It’s easier than ever to sign on to a high-speed connection just about anywhere, and the advantages of delivering business applications through a web browser are huge. Just think about it: All your business data, always backed up, always in sync with everyone else in your organization, always current. Your P&L for the month is right in front of you, no crunching and printing required. The proposal you’re working on? Share it instantly with a colleague to get their feedback and let them make the changes in real time.

Business software packages on the web have many names: web application (imagine that), software as a service (SaaS), “on-demand” applications, and so on. But, they all have one thing in common – they aim to take some kind of business function (e.g. accounting, word processing, scheduling) and make it an application you can use within your web browser. There are big advantages for the makers of software as well: no packaging, no disks, no printed manuals and, most importantly, everyone is up to date with the latest version – which means less support headaches.

There will likely always be certain applications that don’t really work inside a web browser. Programs that move large amounts of data, like graphics programs and video editing software, may never fully migrate to a web environment. For instance, Adobe recently launched on online version of Photoshop, but file size and format limitations make it (intentionally) impractical for day-to-day production use in a business.

But for lighter weight tasks like word processing or spreadsheets, a web application makes an awful lot of sense. In fact, for documents like spreadsheets that often get passed around, reviewed and revised by many people within a company, I would argue that an online, shared model actually makes more sense than sending a document around through email. It’s true collaboration.

The only real issue with online business applications is that are so darn many of them; it can be hard to pick the right one for your needs. Luckily, you’ve got geeks like me who spend a lot of their free time signing up and trying out these services so you don’t have to. Without further ado, I present to you my list of the best web-based business applications available right now, starting with office and project management tools:

Google Apps: – Google’s offering to business owners is pretty compelling, not least because the basic version is free. It’s all here (well, except for accounting; more on that later): email, word processing, spreadsheets, simple web site creation, wikis, calendars, and the list keeps growing as Google expands the offering by acquiring other companies.

Even if you need just some of the features – I know Fortune 500 sales organizations that use the shared spreadsheet feature in place of much more expensive business applications – Google Apps is worth signing up for and exploring. The shared calendar alone is a wonderful alternative to Microsoft Exchange, which can be too expensive for many small businesses in the first place.

The downsides? There are a few, but no deal-breakers. Sometimes all the features aren’t as well-integrated together as, say Microsoft Office on your PC, but Google has done an admirable job of balancing the constant addition of new features with usability. Google also wants you to come over to their world entirely, so it can be difficult to cherry-pick just the features you need. Overall, though, this is a good alternative to Microsoft Office for many users.

If you subscribe to (an online customer relationship management application), they just announced a partnership with Google to make the Google application suite part of their consolidated offering. You’ll be able to access Google documents and features from within Salesforce and vice versa.

Zoho Office: – Another online Office competitor, Zoho has a stronger focus on building feature parity with the real desktop version of Office. While Google advocates a simpler feature set, Zoho forges ahead with the same kind of complex functions (pivot tables in spreadsheets, for instance) that you see in Excel.

It’s all here with Zoho as well; you can pretty much run your business in their suite, including invoicing and customer relationship management (the latter two cost money; most of the other apps are free in some form). In fact, Zoho offers over a dozen applications, including customer relationship management, project management and even web conferencing. It can be hard to tie all of these together and keep track of them, so Zoho might actually be a better solution for users who just need one or two applications. Unlike Google, it’s simple just to pick one, sign up and use it. – At $75 or more per user per month, isn’t cheap, but it’s a great solution for active sales organizations that need to keep track of many prospects, opportunities and quotes. When you’ve grown out of Outlook and Excel and a formal, semi-automated sales process becomes a necessity in order to grow your business, a tool like Salesforce can really get things moving. Good alternatives include Microsoft CRM and Netsuite CRM.

Basecamp: – For any kind of group project collaboration, Basecamp can be a lifesaver. Essentially a central hub for any kind of project activity, Basecamp functions as a group task tracker, a messaging system, a file repository and a milestone tracker. It’s a lot of stuff, but Basecamp has done a wonderful job of pulling out all the things that don’t work in heavyweight project management tools (like Microsoft Project) and making the remaining elements of project management reasonably easy to use. Add an elegant interface and a lot of extensibility – for instance, you can subscribe to web feeds of project activity – you’ve got an effective, reasonably-priced tool for managing most projects.

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