Essential web-based business tools

Companies are increasingly turning to hosted, web-based services as an easy and affordable way to manage their systems. There’s now an impressive range of free and cheap services out there, and we’ve listed some of the best and most well-respected below. Even for major and complex projects, it can pay to investigate solutions like these before building your own:

Online collaboration: For beautifully-designed online collaboration tools, 37signals are definitely worth investigating. Their flagship product ‘Basecamp’ combines project management, scheduling and file-sharing, making it easy to organise a team based in different locations or companies. Other tools on offer include a shared contact system (‘Highrise’) and a group intranet application (‘Backpack’). Pricing ranges from free to around US$100 per month.

Ideas and inspiration: It’s definitely worth taking a look at if you’re on the look-out for ways to motivate and inspire your staff with new ideas. The site provides videos of over 200 talks from the annual TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design), providing direct access to the ideas and research of “the world’s leading thinkers and doers”. The breadth and quality of the talks is outstanding, and access is completely free.

Database applications: The majority of company development projects probably fall under the broad heading of “database applications”, and typically require a process of custom design, development and testing. Dabble DB offers a radical new approach: providing a flexible and hosted database “toolkit”, allowing you to completely design and build your own web-based systems using forms and wizards. Examples include management of products, contacts, events, application forms, accounts and schedules. Current pricing is US$8 per user per month.

Intranets and wikis: The power of “collaborative content” has been demonstrated by Wikipedia, creating an impressive reference resource by allowing anybody to add and edit articles. You can easily harness the same approach for your own intranet, staff training documents, or customer support resources – restricting access to your own staff of course. There are plenty of hosted ‘wiki’ tools out there, but Wikispaces is one of the better ones. Pricing ranges from free up to US$800 per month for a premium corporate service.

Honourable mentions also go to Google Docs (online document sharing), Google Analytics (web traffic analysis), Zoho (broad-ranging business suite) and LinkedIn (social networking for professionals).