In the world of apps for small business, the forecast is cloudy, but in the best possible way.
The "cloud," that clever euphemism for services that process information and store data online, is coming of age. In short order, it's gone from a tech-nerd fixation, to a novelty item for business users, to an everyday fact of life.
So it only makes sense that some of the most useful and popular these days aren't standalone apps so much as clients for online services - slick front-ends, if you will, that facilitate the process of moving onto and off of the Internet.
Some of them are curiosities. But increasingly, cloud services (and the apps that love them) are both practical and easy to use, and offer a real utility to small businesspeople. Here are four standouts to consider:
1. Evernote - The more gadgets populate your life, the harder it becomes to keep track of which piece of data is stored on each one. Evernote is a note-taking system that bypasses this problem by keeping track of all your scraps online - be they notes, cellphone snaps, recordings, snippets you've found online - and making them strikingly easy to access.
An established player with plenty of sworn adherents, Evernote is not that far removed from well-established productivity products like Microsoft OneNote, but it brings app-age simplicity to the table. Install the free app, set up an account by providing a username and e-mail address, and you're in business. Evernote also has desktop apps for Mac and Windows, so - unlike many cloud services, accessed through a browser window - Evernote users can get at their data by firing up a slick app on their home computer.
- Free (premium accounts cost USD$5/month);
- Native clients include iPhone/Android/WebOS/BlackBerry/iPad/MacOS/Windows
2. Dropbox - Transferring large files online is a nettlesome thing, since e-mail can never entirely be trusted for the task, but it's a service that's ever harder to do without.
It's likely that you've already run across Dropbox, if not as a user, then as a recipient of one of its files. What you might not have realized is that Dropbox is both free (for the first 2 Gb, at least), and offers nifty client apps for desktop computers. In fact, on Windows, Dropbox appears as a directory in your "Save As…" windows, so saving to the web is as easy as saving to a any other folder.
Dropbox is hardly the only company in this market: Its most prominent rival, Box.net, offers a whole 5 Gb of free storage, but is more geared towards the corporate market, placing more priority on granular control than on ease-of-use.
- Free (premium subscriptions start at USD$9.99/month)
- Native clients for iPhone/iPad/Android/BlackBerry/MacOS/Windows
3. Beluga - The ability to have IM conversations with a group of people, instead of just one-on-one, has been a mainstay of the BlackBerry-only BlackBerry Messenger service (or BBM), which is one of the platform's selling points. But you can't keep a good (or blindingly obvious) idea down. A clutch of apps that bring these capabilities to other platforms have emerged, and the present frontrunner is called Beluga.
Beluga groups bunches of contacts into "pods" (get it?), a list of friends to message together. You might, for instance, attend a conference, and while you're there create one Beluga "pod" dedicated to business conversations during the day, and another reserved for co-ordinating night-spots for the after-work crowd.
Beluga works across platforms and has quickly become popular - so popular, that it's already been bought up by none other than Facebook. An IM client is only as useful as the number of your contacts who use it; with Facebook behind it, expect to see that number rise quickly.
- Native clients for iPhone/Android
4. Shoeboxed - The life of a small businessperson is a life spent tangled in receipts. Shoeboxed offers a digital reprieve: The mobile-enabled service promises to keep a digital copy of your shoebox full of receipts.
Like most web operations, Shoeboxed offers different tiers of service. Full-paying customers can actually mail away their receipts in Shoebox-provided pre-stamped envelopes. The company will take care of the data entry, and send back the receipts along with a scanned, sorted and human-verified digitized version, ready to be imported into accounting software.
But if mailing your receipts to parts unknown seems like a leap of faith, the Shoeboxed smartphone app gives you another option: You can use an iPhone or Android handset's camera to take a picture of the receipt, and shoot that off to the company. Instead of letting receipts pile up for processing, they can be snapped and filed as soon as they're handed to you.
- Plans start at $9.95 a month;
- Native clients for iPhone/Android
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