If you are looking for something better than Google Docs to work on a document or a presentation with a colleague, this column is for you. I will touch on four alternatives that are all better solutions and can give you ways to create your work product faster.
I have tried Google Docs in a few different situations, and they have been abject failures for different reasons: either the group of potential collaborators has never worked together before, or is too widely distributed geographically or organizationally to have developed any common work habits.
As someone who has written two books with co-authors (along with countless magazine articles that get edited along the way), I can tell you the hardest part about collaboration isn't the technical aspects -- it is the human interactions and developing the various trusted relationships with your co-workers.
The other downside to using Google is that at its heart it still is serial workflow – I write my document and email a link so that you can continue to work on it. What we need are tools that can combine the immediacy of Instant Messaging with the viral power of social networks to help a group of content creators to get started to work together.
If your ultimate product is a document, start with the service Etherpad.com. You can bring up a common shared workspace inside your browser and multiple authors can add their comments in a chat window off to the side and compose on screen in real-time.
Each author is given their own colored font to keep track of changes, and you can go back to particular versions quite easily. This service is great if you want to work with a writing partner on a proposal, say. Or if you have to assemble a final report from several sources and want all the authors to quickly converge on a series of recommendations.
But that solution is just for text. What about that bane of corporate life, PowerPoint slide decks? Here a service called SlideShare.nethas a nifty solution. It goes beyond just sharing your slides by having a layer of social networking on top of things. You can add comments to individual slides, group a series of presentations together (such as all the sessions at a particular conference), add a voice narration track that can be synchronized to the slides, and more. All of this is of course available inside a Web browser.
The speaker's notes that accompany each slide is also displayed and indexed by the search engines, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you use this feature. And you can embed your slides in your blog or broadcast them to your friends on various social networks. The downside is that your builds and transition effects are lost, so if your slides have a lot of these effects, you aren't going to be too happy with the service. I had problems using the Mac Safari to upload my files too.
Moving on beyond slide decks is the service called drop.iofor real-time collaboration that is based on an IM-style chat service. You bring up a browser and point to a common URL and off you go. You can drag and drop photos, documents, whatever and they show up in the common workspace, which you can view as a chat stream or a file directory. You can add comments, voice messages, even faxes (remember them?) to your shared workspace. When you have reached a point where you want others to review your work, you can send out a broadcast message to your Facebook or Twitter friends or gather everything up in a Zip file. For collections of files less than 100MB, the service is free.
Speaking of Twitter (isn't everyone these days?), one final service that I will mention here is Yammer.com. If you think of this as a private social network discussion board that combines some of the notification and flexibility of Twitter with that of the traditional BBS's, you got it. You can share files, have a tag cloud and a layer of search on top of everything too.
There are lots of other specialized collaboration tools – Collab.net's free Subversion is useful for tracking software development projects, and Clarizen.com's fee-based project management tool is another one that I haven't tried but seems useful in that area.
The nice thing about all of the services that I mention is that they all have free versions. With drop.io, if you want more room, you can get upgraded for $10 a gigabyte per year or if you want more management for $20 a month plan for 20 GB of storage. Yammer has a paid version if you want a managed private shared space that starts at $1 per person per month. Isn't the Internet a grand experiment in free data processing? Nevertheless, it is great to be able to try something out risk-free.
If you want to get started with any of these technologies, realize that you are going to have to address the people issues first, and figure out how to build the best work teams that will want to collaborate with each other rather than send email attachments back and forth.
Do let me know of your own suggestions and what has worked and hasn't for your collaborations. And if you want me to come speak to your company about these and other technologies, you can download my slide deck here (it is very much a work in progress) and see if it would be appropriate. http://www.slideshare.net/davidstrom
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv