Small Office, Home Office Solutions

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Software tools designed to rev up SOHO success

By Jacqueline Emigh

As times keep changing, so do ways of achieving productivity. In today’s highly competitive economy, SOHO users are in more need than ever of software that automates routine tasks like accounting and business correspondence. Yet the rise of technologies like the Web, mobile devices, and social networking are spurring new demands for innovative approaches to business collaboration, finding facts, and organizing ideas.

Small businesses are discovering software that helps them work smarter in all of these ways. They’re also finding out that you don’t have to be a software whiz to leverage these tools for gaining a competitive edge.

Desktop software from companies such as Intuit and Google keeps getting simpler and more capable. Meanwhile, outside providers like Go To Meeting are running software on their own servers that let you conduct meetings through Web browsers, regardless of where employees are or what operating systems they’re using. Even if you still do a lot of your business tasks on pen and paper, there’s a Web app out there for you.

Many of the tools and apps are free. If not, free trial versions are available, seemingly more often than not. To give you a jump start on exploring what’s out there for you, here (below) are ten offerings that are gaining substantial wins for SOHO users. Some of the tools and apps are available for Windows, some for Macs, others for Web browsers, and a few in Linux and/or smartphone versions.

The following are a few examples of essential software tools for SOHO workers that can not only help you work smarter and more efficiently, but remain more competitive in this challenging market.

1. ThinkFree

Just about every business today uses software for office task automation. Most of them use Microsoft Office Suite, or components chosen from that suite. Yet, Microsoft Office is quite pricey. It runs on Windows and Mac only, with the Mac version tending to lag behind in functionality.

Meanwhile though, rising numbers of cheaper options are becoming available, and some are quite full-featured. HaanSoft’s ThinkFree, one of the best, is offered in mobile editions for Apple iPhones, Microsoft Windows, Android smartphones, and netbooks, as well as an online version accessible through Web browsers from any PC.

ThinkFree works on Web browsers, iPhones, and Android and Windows phones and Consists of the Write word processor, Calc spreadsheet, and Show presentation package. Yet for smooth compatibility with Microsoft Office, tools are also supplied for viewing Office applications without opening them, and for opening and editing docs in ThinkFree’s online edition.

Each user of the free online edition gets 1 GB of document storage online. You can also connect to ThinkFree’s online edition through FaceBook. For companies that prefer running applications behind their own security firewalls, ThinkFree sells the suite as server-based software.

Google Docs offers many of the same capabilities as ThinkFree Online. However, a few features in Google Docs – such as HTML editing – have been temporarily left behind in the move to the current edition. Also, a number of users have complained online about problems in accessing their stored Web documents. Yet Google Docs supports an even wider range of mobile phones than ThinkFree, including RIM BlackBerries, for instance.

But maybe you still want to stick with desktop office software. If so, OpenOffice.org offers a free open source software suite with very wide functionality, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package, database management program, and special tools for math formulas and drawing. The OpenOffice.org suite runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, IBM’s old OS/2 platform, Linux, and several other flavors of Unix. A lighter-weight portable edition – small enough to fit on a USB thumb drive — is available for Windows, Linux and Unix.

Read our ThinkFree Online Review

2. Google Desktop

What would it be like to bring Google’s Internet search power to the contents of your desktop or notebook PCs? You can uncover the answer by downloading Google Desktop on to your computer.

With all of the .pdf files, presentations, and other files accessible on the Web, chances are that you keep picking up data on hard drives at a quicker and quicker clip. With a single query, Google Desktop helps you locate whatever you’re looking for in that morass of information a lot faster than through the Windows search function.

Google Desktop works with all file types, including old .txt files that might have been hanging around the office for years. It’s free, but it’s for Windows only. While grabbing Google Desktop, you can also download Google Gadgets, a set of Web-enabled software tools aimed at keeping you on top of news, weather, and sports.

Originally, Google Desktop ran only on Windows. However, versions have since been added for Macs and Linux.

Read our Google Apps Standard Edition Review

3. QuickSilver for Macs and Skylight for Windows

If you’re a Mac user, you also have Spotlight, a feature built into Mac OS X for lightning-fast searches. QuickSilver, on the other hand, is a desktop application launcher and Mac commander, available for free from Apple partner Blackfree.

With QuickSilver, you can open apps on your Mac, launch Web sites, e-mail documents, and do a lot more, all from within the same place. Unlike the Mac Finder, QuickSilver is keystroke-driven, a boon to those who prefer the keyboard over a mouse.

CandyLabs is now building a somewhat similar piece of software known as Skylight. Designed for Windows XP, Vista, and 7, Skylight is geared to “learning your habits” as you work with it to open documents, start desktop apps, and search the Web. Although downloadable for free already, Skylight is still in public beta testing, with further improvements beckoning.

For a future edition, CandyLabs envisions replacing keystrokes with natural language commands in which you’ll describe the task you want to do in your own words. An example given on the Web site is, “I want to e-mail this document, located wherever, to this person.” Someday, the software will also even use auto-completion to fill in some of the blanks for you.

4. Constant Contact

No matter what services or products your company is selling, a successful direct marketing campaign can generate new business. But with the costs of paper and postage perpetually rising, snail mail is fading away. E-mail is the obvious alternative, but how can you make your own electronic messages stand out from the ongoing flood of other e-mails?

Accessible over the Web, Constant Contact comes with special tools to help your e-mails make it through spam filters. More than 400 HTML e-mail templates are available, eachcustomizable for your company logo and whatever colors and photos you choose. You can see who reads and opens the e-mails you send, and which links they click on.

Many small businesses are singing the praises of Constant Contact. David Sanford, proprietor of a 100+-year-old inn on Cape Cod, has used Constant Contact to bring down marketing costs while building up hotel bookings outside of the summer season. Sanford said he likes e-mail’s “nimble marketing” capabilities. With Constant Contact, he can keep the Crowne Point Historic Inn and Spa visible to customers throughout the year, broadcasting available rooms and special promotions even at the last minute.

5. Quicken

Organizing your finances is critical, no matter what else you do. Intuit’s tried-and-true Quicken apps let you consolidate all your accounts into a single place, set and stick to budgets, pay bills, and get a bird’s eye view of all your expenditures.

Quicken makes great use of colorful charts. After entering in your expenses, you can get a pie chart showing percentages and dollars spent in different categories. If you decide you want to cut down on restaurant expenditures, for instance, Quicken can keep track of how you’re doing toward meeting that goal. You can also set the system to alert you when your credit card payments are due, for example — or to let you know if a payment you’re about to make will overdraw your bank account.

In addition to Quicken Essentials for Mac, three editions are available for Windows: Home & Business, Premier, and Deluxe. Intuit has now added a browser-based Web edition of Quicken, too.

Read our Quicken Deluxe Review

6. NovaMind Mind Mapping Software

Organizing your thoughts is another matter. To give your brain a boost, dozens of vendors have now entered into an emerging product category known as “mind mapping” software.

NovaMind’s offering in this group has already seen deployment by customers ranging from SOHO users like Stephen Feber Ltd. [link to customer highlight] to large enterprises such as 3M Corp. and NASA. The software package is designed to help you capture ideas, communicate thoughts more effectively to other people, and solve problems.

How does mind mapping work? Approaches vary among software vendors, but generally speaking, mind mapping gives you a visual representation of tasks, words, concepts and other items, arranged around a central keyword. The results show you the relationships among these items, both in traditional linear and non-linear ways.

While mimicking the functionality of the left- and right-hand parts of the human brain, mind mapping combines these powers with the computer’s computational and storage capabilities. To get a clearer notion of all of this, though, you really need to try out some of their software. NovaMind is among the software vendors that offer free trials. A couple of alternatives to NovaMind include SimTech’s MindMapper and a free tool called FreeMind.

7. Go To Meeting

Travel keeps costing more every year. On the other hand, business meetings are a requirement that never goes away. To fill the gap, a number of Web-based conferencing systems have been springing up.

Go To Meeting, one of the best of these offerings, pulls together presentation and chat, while also integrating VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) for toll-free phone calling and voice conferencing over the Internet.

The subscription-based Web service works with Windows PCs and Macs outfitted with Web browsers. The flagship product is tailored to small businesses, but an enterprise edition with administrative features is also available. Related conferencing services are available from Go To Meeting for Webinars and online training. s

8. Skype

If you don’t need to share presentation graphics over the Web, but you want to do both videoconferencing and telephone meetings, Skype could be your answer.

An early pioneer in VoIP, Skype now claims to have millions of users worldwide. The company keeps adding to its feature set, with capabilities that now include the ability to record and play back SMS text messages and voice and video calls.

Unlike Go to Meeting and most other VoIP services, which run software on their own servers for access by Web browsers, Skype furnishes proprietary client software that uses the processing power of PCs and other computers.

Yet with a Skype account and client software in hand, you can do conferencing across a very wide range of platforms indeed: Windows, Macs, Linux; recent TV models from several manufacturers, and mobile phones and other devices running diverse OS, such as Symbian and Maemo.

Emilinao de Laurentiis, publisher of Sante, estimated that his company has cut its phone bills from $20,000 all the way down to $600 per year with Skype. Sante, an international magazine for restaurant managers, has staff scattered around the world. Sante is using Skype as a “virtual PBX” to connect its workers globally from both desktop phones and smartphones.

Read our Skype vs. Google Voice Showdown Review

9. DIY Planner

But maybe, when all is said is done, you still want to stick with the age-old method of pen-and-paper for a lot of your business processes. If so, DIY Planner offers a software-based system that can make the most of these old-fashioned tactics.

From DIY’s Web site, you can download and print out software forms templates for note-taking, \”to do\” lists, time management, project planning, and much more. After you’ve printed the forms, you can insert them into paper-based notebooks and planners.

As explained on the site, Douglas Johnson, the creator of DIY Planner, has built a successful business out of his own hobby of collecting forms software. So Johnson is one of the many SOHO users who has learned at first hand that the right software can bring substantial rewards.

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