3 Free Tools for Digital Productivity

Cloud networking for success

The age of the cloud is officially upon us, and as ominous as people may believe that to be, for a guy on the move it’s actually a good thing. 

Every silver lining has a cloud

With HQ offices in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Tokyo, lately I’ve worked in the field and on the move from those cities to Jakarta, Singapore, Vancouver, Seoul, Colombo, Kyoto, Yangon and beyond—never missing a beat (cue “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man” theme music). And I’ve managed to do that with the help of three basic online tools.

For me, the concept of “the office” is a thing of the past. We used to “go to the office” because that was where all of our needed files, documents and communication tools were based. Without seeming trite: times have changed. The new office is digital and more than portable. All you need is on your laptop – and in the clouds.

Skype

If people are the heart of any business, then communication between them is the blood flow. Cut off that flow, and you kill your organization. To survive, we’ve created numerous devices from the telegraph to the telephone, from the pager to the cell phone, but at a cost: contracts, tariffs, long-distance rates and data charges.

To deal with the cost of communications, large multi-nationals now routinely install Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone systems to carry their transmissions over the internet. It saves on long distance rates, but it’s expensive telephony.

Enter Skype. I know you’ve heard of it, the now ubiquitous free talk and chat tool used by distant friends and family to keep in touch. So much so, that it has even become a verb in its own right, a la Google (Go on, Google it – we’ll Skype about it later). As mainstreet as it sounds, don’t overlook it as a tool for business. In fact, this is your first stop in our tour of getting your company more connected and productive.

Simply put, Skype allows you to communicate with anyone, anywhere – for free, provided you have an internet connection and a computer. Get over its simple instant message and talk-over-the-internet features. Instead, harness the power of its video conferencing to conduct business meetings regardless of location (or operating system: the application works and connects across Windows, Mac, and Linux). Use its file sharing to send pertinent files to whoever you’re meeting with. As well, you can add the application to your smart phone, and do all this on the go.

Update: As of Skype 5.0 Beta for Mac and Windows, now allows for group video-in-video calling. This is huge.

Dropbox

Head and shoulders above its competitors in its simplicity and ease of use, Dropbox is your next step in getting connected. You know that USB thumb drive you carry everywhere with you so you can always have your important files and documents at hand? The one you’re so scared to lose? Get rid of it.

Dropbox is your  online thumb drive.  Access it from anywhere, at anytime, and from any machine. Yes – any machine. And it’s free.

Sign up on the website and you instantly have 2GB of storage at your disposal (you can pay for upgrades of up to 100GB of online storage). This is stored in Dropbox’s secure servers, allowing you to seamlessly access files from any online computer or mobile device. An app download is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, as well as the iPhone and iPod touch, allowing you to use it like any external drive.

All you have to do now is drag and drop any size or type of file you want saved on to your new ’drive. The best part? Those files and folders within it can be shared, privately or publicly, with anyone.

Update: Those files can also now be selectively synced between your devices

All files are synchronized across any number of computers. So your desktop, laptop, and mobile phone all access the same files and any changes made are instantly synched. No more multiple versions of one file.

Practically speaking, your entire office can access a folder to retrieve reports, presentations, images, and schedules—anything you can think of, really. Whether you’re in Bangkok or Bangalore, whatever you need to share with clients or staff is all right there in the cloud. Dropbox is your new office friend. With benefits.

Google Docs

Dropbox handles files of any size or type efficiently and robustly. Its uses are myriad, both personally and professionally, but if you want to kick it up a notch in office productivity, you need to get that plethora of documents under control.

When working on ‘docs’ with multiple people, the endless revisions and editions pile up. Versions get lost in the many CC’ed e-mail messages. Comments and questions about the document go unanswered. Someone invariably asks, “Do I have the latest version of that?” Worse still, a colleauge or partner sends out a document version with last year’s pricing or a wrong quote.

Take another step on the ladder to the cloud. Google Docs does for document management what Dropbox does for generic files.

Just sign up (you already have a login if you have a Gmail account) and up your latest documents to their servers.

Google rolled out the online office suite way back in 2006, well before we were extolling the virtues of cloud computing. What started as a simple, free online spreadsheet and word processing program has now morphed into the de facto web-based collaboration tool. It features the ability to upload from and download to your desktop any number of file formats including .doc, .xls, .rtf, .ppt, .csv and more.

Update: Google has now rolled out Google Apps for free for regular users mobile devices allowing for Gmail IMAP functionality using your own domain name. Businesses can also pay for it.

Now, instead of that flurry of confusing back-and-forth e-mail messages between people working on the same project report or marketing budget, and the added confusion that results from name changes and edits, it’s all stored safely in one place. You guessed it: in the cyber cumulonimbus. All the revisions and who did what to whom can be seen at a glance, comments can be made, and multiple people can work on one document simultaneously and safely.

The best part of this system? It reduces the amount of time involved in finding and maintaining your organization’s current documents, and completely alleviates the fear of losing your important docs when (not if) a local hard drive failure or power outage occurs.

Alternatively, if you’re a hardcore Microsoft Office user, you can try their similar service, Microsoft Office Live Workspace (yes, saying that mouthful doesn’t seem quite as productive as “Google Docs” does it?). Their Microsoft Office 365 looks promising, too.

And there you have it: three free tools to save you countless time and money.


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