January 1, 2008

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Budget with a Click

Making the Most of Online Freebies

Jane Gendron

January 1, 2008

With a mere point and click, small businesses are discovering Web-based tools that don’t cost a penny. Though it can be challenging to navigate the quagmire of offerings (it is called the Web for a reason), online corporations are providing ever-evolving options for the little guy. Download Software and Service As companies battle for a piece of the Microsoft-dominated pie, a window of opportunity is opening for small businesses: free software applications. Yes, free. Spreadsheets, documents, presentation tools akin to Power Point are ripe for the picking online and many of them can be used offline (such as during a flight when Internet access is off limits). Among those vying for office apps patrons are: Zoho, Google and ThinkFree. Not to be outdone, Microsoft recently announced its own freebies, Office Live Workspace and Office Live Small Business. Each application has its benefits and drawbacks. For example, Google Docs allows multiple users to collaborate online instead of shuffling multiple versions of the same document via e-mail. Yet, compatibility issues might be a problem or some colleagues may be afraid to entrust their work to a Web-based host. Before downloading online software, take a tour, visit sites like YouTube for instructional videos and talk to an IT professional. Ivan Stein, owner of Advanced Computer Solutions, LLC, tends to rely on products he knows, such as Open Office (Sun Microsystems), which he has downloaded on several clients’ machines. “It’s a huge package that does everything Microsoft does,” he says. Sure, folks using Open Office need to use the “Save As” function rather than simply hitting “Save,” so that others using Microsoft can access files, but that’s a small price to pay for a free product. Stein points out that Open Office is a 200-megabyte file, which indicates a well-written program. High Speed Connection Marketing via the Web is more than a matter of getting a site up and running (often an easy, low-cost endeavor, but not exactly gratis). The gentrified versions of MySpace, such as LinkedIn, offer small businesses a way to connect or re-connect with past and potential clients. Just like a chamber of commerce social, it’s the online version of meet-and-greets with electronic business cards swapping hands furiously – only there’s no reason to wear a suit. Among the ever-changing options for virtual networking: Ryze, Ziggs, JumpUp and iKarma (rock bands might consider sticking with MySpace). Blog or Survey Whether hankering to have your voice heard or simply gunning for a bit more online exposure, blogging can be just as cost-free as networking or downloading software. Simply type “free blog” into any search engine and, voilà, a menu of free hosts appear. What they get: You blogging from their site and the search optimization and advertising potential it bestows upon their entity. What you get: A customized spot to wax poetic about your business or perhaps some unrelated passion (you tag your name or chosen title to the blog’s Web address). Similarly, free online surveys are available in multiple forms. Should a business need to poll potential or current customers on any number of topics, services such as www.freeonlinesurveys.com allow the mom-and-pop shop to reach out to the vast Web. Protect Your Computer Downloading and accessing “freeware” and no-cost services might mean exposure to evildoers (a.k.a. hackers, viruses and spyware). David Ringelberg of PCXpansion suggests three free downloads for protection: Grisoft for anti-virus, Spybot for spyware and Zone Alarm firewall protection. However, he warns that no cost also means no tech support. “It’s the same old thing; you get what you pay for. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own,” explains Ringelberg. The Catch Ah, there’s always a catch isn’t there? Aside from lack of technical support, there are a few additional concerns when taking advantage of free online goodies. A business relying completely on an online application will be, well, out of luck should the connection lapse or crash – at least until the connection is back on track. And, as any good capitalist knows, what’s free today may not be free tomorrow. (Or, perhaps the basic free package doesn’t offer enough, so you start shelling out monthly fees for premium versions). In the final analysis, harnessing the power of online tools can save cash for a small business. As these products and services stand the test of time and reviews stack up (let’s face it, people aren’t shy about pointing out flaws), presumably, so, too, will reliability and consumer confidence. In the meantime, before taking the plunge, do your research and consult an expert. Free and Clear Some lucrative links to keep your company up to speed: To run your business: openoffice.org, docs.google.com, officelive.microsoft.com To network: linkedin.com, ryze.com, tribe.net To stay safe: zonealarm.com, threatfire.com, grisoft.com, spywarebot.com, pctools.com
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