At Turbine, we believe in the power of cloud computing to make businesses more efficient and productive. It’s in our DNA. Here are forty tools and apps that we have used and enjoyed. We’re also looking a cloud-hosted email, business applications and CRM and I’ll report back when I finished my evaluation. (This post was previously published on my other blog, Bad Language.)
A friend of mine recently lost all his work, his family photos and his music collection when his hard disk failed. It cost him hundreds of pounds to recover it. Now, if that had been a book or business files, the cost might have been much higher. This is why I use Mozy Pro to backup my key data over the internet. It costs $0.50/GB per month and the software backups my server automatically.
Dropbox is an online file system. You can create folders and upload files via a web interface or with a downloadable application that puts those folders onto your PC and keeps them synchronised. The neat thing is that you can share folders with other people so that they can access files in selected folders too. It’s very elegant and easy to use. I use it to make sure I have access to key files on my laptops and also to share files with clients. I have 50 GB of storage and that costs me $99 a year.
Basecamp is a great intranet-style online application that lets you share files, project plans and generally collaborate over the internet. I don’t use it as much as I used to because DropBox does file sharing better (bigger uploads, easier to use etc.) and because I’m not running so many team-based projects. But if you need a team site, this is the system I would recommend. There is a limited, free version but prices start at $24/month for a fully-featured service.
Scribe is a WordPress plugin that helps you optimise the content of posts and pages for search engines. It gives helpful feedback to tweak the content and highlight keywords. I’ve just started using it on this blog and so it’s too early to tell how effective it will be in the long run. I’m slowly working through the most popular posts and optimising them. It takes me about 5-10 minutes per post to tweak the content and metatags to get a high content score. What I like about Scribe is that it gives you clear instructions about how to improve the score. The only drawback – it’s not cheap. I pay $47 a month for 120 evaluations. To be honest, I’d rather pay a one-off fee and get unlimited evaluations but if the income means they keep improving the tool and I get better SEO as a result, it’s probably worth it. Certainly, the fee is relatively cheap in proportion to the the time I put in for SEO.
5. Site 24×7
Site24x7 monitors your website(s) and reports weekly on uptime and downtime. It can also send SMS and email alerts if a site becomes unavailable. It can also monitor DNS settings and mail servers. If you have a business site, this is an invaluable service. There is a free service and the paid-for services cost little per site.
6. Shrink O’Matic
Okay, it’s not exactly an online application but an Adobe Air app. That said it’s a neat little tool for resizing images in batches and giving them some liposuction. I like it a lot. It’s free so you can’t beat the price.
I wrote about web, video and phone conferencing tools in February and I don’t want to repeat that content here. However, Skype is an essential tool for writers. I use it to interview people worldwide and with the addition of Pamela, a voice recorder program, it can keep recordings of interviews for future reference. Pamela costs €14.95 if you want unlimited recordings although there is a free version. Skype is free but you need to pay for a Skype-In line to receive calls from the regular phone network and for Skype-Out credit to make outgoing calls to non-Skype users.
I like this a lot. It lets you ping your future self with a message via Jabber, email or Twitter at a given time.
[Update 20.9.12: This site appears to have stopped working.]
Writer is an online distraction-free editor. It will let you focus on writing without any of the icons, menus and screen clutter you find in Word.
10. Write or Die
If Writer is too tame for you, Write or Die is an online editor that punishes you if you don’t get meet your word count target.
Track your time using a simple web application that uploads your data directly to the web for analysis and reporting. This is much easier and more accurate than using timesheets. If you want to see where the time goes and, even more if you can bill for it, Slimtimer, is the app for you. I looked at it in detail a couple of years ago and it still appears to be free.
$5 for 50 opinions. Get instant user feedback from real people. This is very cool and straightforward.
BlueMailCentral is a cool system that lets you print letters on your PC via a customised printer driver. Instead of popping out on your local printer, the letter goes to BlueMailCentral’s HQ where it is distributed to a printing center near your destination where it is printed, enveloped and posted for you. You can use it for one-off letters, invoices or huge mailshots. You get local postage rates worldwide and you don’t have to both with putting things in envelopes or buying stamps anymore. [Full disclosure: BlueMailCentral is a client.]
I use WordPress for this blog and my other sites. It’s great. It’s free. Newbies can get a free blog via WordPress.com and not have to worry about hosting or anything technical. I wrote an article about how to create your own blog in 2008 and I think this is still a good place to start.
Timebridge helps you schedule meetings with different people. It’s fine if everyone is on the same mail system but it’s much harder coordinating people from different companies. (Also look at ScheduleOnce and Tungle.)
If your life is like George Clooney’s in Up in the Air, then TripIt.com is going to be great for you. It tracks your itineraries – planes, hotels, car hire etc. – and warns you if there are any problems. An iPhone app lets you keep track of everything on the move. To update the itinerary just email your confirmations to TripIt and it will parse them automatically. I was sceptical at first but now I use it for every trip and I paid $59 for the pro version. (The free version doesn’t do updates and doesn’t track frequent flyer miles but it’s perfectly good otherwise.)
17. Joe’s Goals
I first wrote about Joe’s Goals back in 2006 and it’s still a great app for tracking and maintaining habits online.
Good news everybody, Zamzar converts all kinds of graphics files from one format to another and emails you with the results. And it’s free. Bad news: it comes with a bunch of adverts, including an irritating pop-up and pop-under ads. Bad app. Naughty app. You still get ads if you pay $7 a month but for $16 a month they go away. Does anyone know a less ad-hungry conversion app online?
Formstack lets you create interactive online forms. I use them to run surveys for my customers. With PayPal integration, you can use them to let people sign up for paid services. It’s very easy to use and while there is a limited free version that lets you create three forms, prices start at a very reasonable $14 a month.
ProofHQ lets you collaborate with clients and team members to manage design reviews and approvals with share online document mark-up.
Get quick, anonymous 360-degree feedback about your work with Rypple.
Read and publish books and magazines online with a neat interactive reader. I use this for my free eBook because it has a good WordPress plugin.
Scribd is very similar to issuu but I suspect it has more readers and more content. My book is also available there and it has had slightly more readers via Scribd than Issuu. I just think that the WordPress plug-in is less attractive.
If you have more than one browser on your PC or you use more than one PC, keeping your web browser bookmarks and web passwords synchronised is a nightmare. This is where Xmarks comes in. It works with Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari. It synchronises everything so that you are, in effect, using the same set of bookmarks, quick links and passwords everywhere. It’s fantastic.
I have a Microsoft Exchange Server and I get a ton of spam. At one point last year, between bounceback spam and spam spikes, I was getting 30,000+ spams a day. My broadband connection and server were struggling to keep up and on a few occasions I couldn’t send or receive messages at all. However, for $12 per user per year, Postini blocks all that and email malware out in the cloud before it comes anywhere near my systems.
I wrote about Daytum before. I think it’s a cool way to track and share numerical and time-based data, such as bugs fixed per week or miles run per month or calories consumer per hour (I had cake yesterday!). It produces the kind of data dashboard you normally see with high-end business intelligence systems, except of course, you have to enter the data yourself. I think that the way it uses tags to give structure to the data is very elegant; very smart.
Okay, it’s not a strictly business application but I really like it and I think work-life-exercise balance is essential if you’re a freelancer. RunKeeper tracks your exercise and running history, including map overlays, and it lets you share the results. With an iPhone app, you can track your runs in real time using GPS and upload the results automatically.
Bubbl.us is a free online mindmapping application. It’s very easy to use and you can embed your diagrams in WordPress.
29. Rescue Time
RescueTime is a tool that you can download to your PC and it tracks what you do. This lets you block distractions, like websites or Twitter, for a period of time or track work on given files or projects. All the reporting comes back to the website and you get lots of data and administrivia to help your reform your habits.
30. Google Maps
Google Maps is really helpful for planning trips to meetings. Now you can get Google Streetview for every road in the UK, that’s become a really helpful tool as well. It’s also worth putting your own business up on the map and editing your own entry properly.
Balsamiq is a great tool for creating quick website mockups and sharing them with other people. The deliberately cartoony and Comic Sans style stops people obsessing about pixel perfect art and focuses them on words and layout. See my review of seven website mockup tools for some other online wireframing applications.
32. Google Reader
I have used a number of different RSS readers but I have ended up with Google Reader because it is easy, free and ubiquitous. I’d like to find a ‘five-minute guide to Reader mastery’ because I feel like I’m missing some tricks with it but it’s still be the best system I’ve used for managing and reading lots of blogs.
33. Concentration and meditation timer
34. Readability checker
This tool will help you improve your writing by giving objective, numerical feedback using Flesch Kinkaid, Gunning Fog and SMOG indices. You can analyse all the text on a web page or paste in some text directly.
Wikipedia is not a good primary source for writers but it is a great way to explore and understand a topic and the best Wikipedia entries have useful links and sources that can help you get to primary sources quickly. I find it very useful for understanding technical jargon that my interviewees throw into discussions. I can quickly look up a word and scan the page while I’m interviewing them (on the phone!) and it helps me follow the conversation.
Wiktionary is a reasonably reliable place to look up words and check meanings. I have the Oxford English Dictionary on my iPhone which is more authoritative but Wiktionary is right there in my browser which makes it more convenient. It’s also very helpful when I’m trying to look up Dutch words.
37. Google Translate
I like Google Translate a lot. It’s a good way to quickly check spellings and translations. When I’m doing prose translations from English into Dutch for my homework, I like to try the Dutch version myself and then use Google to ‘proofread’ it.
38. Visual Thesaurus
Visual Thesaurus is an interactive, animated thesaurus that makes exploring the dictionary easy and fun. Because it is quick and easy, you can find the word you’re looking forward much quicker and get inspired at the same time.
I’m good with words but rubbish with images so I find iStockPhoto a very useful tool. It lets me find images, icons, pictures and so on for websites, blogs, presentations and documents. They’re relatively cheap to buy and you can use the lightbox tool to offer clients a selection of images. It’s widely used, however, so you have to be careful to avoid picking clichéd images or just using images for the sake of it.
Did you ever have a weird compressed file that you needed to uncompress? You know, a Linux fanboy sends you something that is compressed as a .RAR file and your puny Windows box can’t do anything with it. Wobzip is the answer. It uncompresses 7z, ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2, TAR, RAR, CAB, ISO, ARJ, LZHCHM, Z, CPIO, RPM, DEB and NSIS files online.