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Get a Portable Office on the Cheap

It's possible to coordinate your business, no matter where you are, for next to nothing.

A year ago, Osman Rashid, co-founder and CEO of Textbookflix.com, a company that provides textbook rental services and runs marketing campaigns across the country, was frustrated by traditional email's inability to provide his 50 nationwide marketing teams with much-needed real-time communication and document-sharing.

Thirsting for efficiency, Rashid began using

Google Apps the first week the service was available, and it's been his company's default service ever since.

With this platform, Rashid's far-flung teams can edit and update spreadsheets simultaneously, right from their browsers. Each revision is automatically saved. "It's almost like a Wiki without having to do all the Wiki stuff," Rashid says.

As

RealMoney

contributor Sramana Mitra notes, "

software-as-a-service" is a nascent trend in which software is hosted remotely and can be accessed from any computer with Internet access.

Business travelers, exit the dark ages of email and phone tag. Free collaboration gives you what you need to give your business some real time on the road.

Of course, don't expect state-of-the-art from a free service that's still ironing out the kinks. Annoyingly, says Rashid,

Google's

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spreadsheets won't print properly. For more thorough and professional documents, he still uses programs like Excel.

"You have to think strategically," says Rashid, yet for the purposes of his company, Google Apps provides a huge cost benefit: It's free. To install more-sophisticated

Microsoft

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applications, which he might not even use regularly, Rashid would end up paying several hundreds of dollars.

Go Places With Google Apps

Many small-business owners aren't yet aware of the growing treasure trove of free or dirt-cheap applications from household names like Google that can make collaboration on your next trip a breeze instead of a mad scramble.

My sister, who commutes an hour to school each day, still has to finish college before extensive business travel opportunities will arise, but she's already using Google's Gmail and its 2 gigabytes of storage to forward emails from all her other accounts to this sole account. This helpful application can even be installed on your BlackBerry (go to

http://m.google.com/a).

Google has been leading the pack with its Google Apps platform. It has gained a lot of traction with small businesses facing the challenge of operating from multiple regions with an employee base that doesn't have the time to work on a more-sophisticated infrastructure, says Google Apps product manager Rishi Chandra.

Because Google Apps is Web-based, office documents and corporate email can be accessed from an Internet cafe in Bengal or on a BlackBerry on a tarmac in London. "People are very dispersed now," says Chandra. The main objective of Google Apps, he says, is to give small businesses equal footing in terms of collaboration, allowing employees to interact effectively, in real time, without financial strain.

Launched in August 2006, Google Apps' standard edition and its premier edition -- which costs $50 per user per year and offers higher support levels and more storage -- have been adopted by more than 100 small businesses a day, says Chandra.

Most small businesses come to Google Apps looking for email solutions and end up using many of the other features, says Chandra. "There's a very big 'wow' factor. ... People don't realize how difficult it is to collaborate until they see something better." Favorite applications include document and spreadsheet file sharing and collaboration and a searchable Gmail application that allows all email accounts to be viewed from one central account.

The platform requires no software downloads; all you need is a Web browser and a domain. It's a no-brainer for people who lack a strong tech background or the funds to support an IT department.

Google's plans to acquire security firm Postini in the third quarter will give Google Apps relevance with more-sophisticated small businesses, thanks to complex archiving and emailing solutions. Google also plans to add a presentation tool that will allow for interactive presentations.

Other Options

Even though Google is the big collaborator on the Web-based campus, Rashid still uses the ubiquitous Yahoo! for instant-messaging purposes, and sticks with Excel for sophisticated documents.

Microsoft offers Microsoft Office Live, a hosted service that eases your travel time by synchronizing your email contacts and calendar with Outlook 2007. Its Basics service is free, and its Essentials and Premium editions, which include additional domain names and extra storage space, range from $20 to $40 a month.

Last month, Yahoo! announced the new version of Yahoo! Mail, which includes the ability to send free text messages from Yahoo! Mail to mobile phone numbers in the U.S., Canada, India and the Philippines without having to get on your phone.

Yahoo! Messenger for the Web, announced this spring, enables users to IM from any Internet-enabled computer.

And Grand Central, a communications company just acquired by Google, links your phones together by giving customers one number not tied to any phone or location, allowing them to answer a call at any phone and switch phones seamlessly during a call. According to its site, the service is only available to a limited number of users in beta testing, but you can sign up for an invitation on its

Web site.