Share Files Online — Part 3: Collaboration Tools

Two guinea pigs sharing a carrot

You need to share files. Whether it’s with friends, clients, part­ners, or cowork­ers, there’s some file you need them to see, and vice-ver­sa.

My last two posts drew a dis­tinc­tion between whether you’re file-shar­ing for pub­li­ca­tion or for col­lab­o­ra­tion (How to Share Files — Part 1: Overview), and then explored some options for the pub­li­ca­tion-based options (How to Share Files — Part 2: Pub­li­ca­tion Tools).

Now we’ll look at the buzzing, bloom­ing, inter­ac­tive face of file-shar­ing: col­lab­o­ra­tion.

In Pub­li­ca­tion-based file-shar­ing, you cre­ate a file and then put it out there for peo­ple to use and admire. Col­lab­o­ra­tion-based file-shar­ing is dif­fer­ent: rather than cre­at­ing the doc­u­ment in advance, you’re cre­at­ing it right along with oth­er people—at least with their review and input, and very like­ly also with them co-cre­at­ing the doc­u­ment.

Collaboration Refresher

What Are Col­lab­o­ra­tion Tools?

The goal. You want to cre­ate doc­u­ments along with oth­er peo­ple. Maybe sev­er­al peo­ple are col­lab­o­rat­ing on a par­tic­u­lar doc­u­ment, or maybe sev­er­al peo­ple are cre­at­ing their own doc­u­ments in a shared place that they and oth­ers can access. You want to see oth­ers’ changes, com­ment on them, make changes to oth­ers’ doc­u­ments, etc.

The means. An appli­ca­tion that cre­ates and stores doc­u­ments online. You don’t install soft­ware on your com­put­er, you just open your brows­er and start edit­ing the doc­u­ment, which is stored some­where on the Inter­net.

An exam­ple prob­lem.You and a col­league need to work on a pre­sen­ta­tion to show at an upcom­ing meet­ing.

Some pos­si­ble solu­tions. Google Docs. Zoho Show. ThinkFree’s Show. Once it’s avail­able for every­one, Microsoft’s Docs for Face­book.

What You Lose

No ques­tion, there are down­sides.

Types of documents

ThinkFree's Supported Document Types

ThinkFree’s Sup­port­ed Doc­u­ment Types

With a col­lab­o­ra­tive ser­vice, you use the ser­vice provider’s online tools to cre­ate doc­u­ments. If you want to col­lab­o­rate on a word pro­cess­ing doc­u­ment, just about any ser­vice can help you. If you want to make a spread­sheet or a pre­sen­ta­tion (think Pow­er­Point), you’re still in pret­ty good shape. But do you want to col­lab­o­rate on a page lay­out doc­u­ment (like Adobe InDe­sign or Microsoft Pub­lish­er)? A struc­tured graph­i­cal doc­u­ment (like Adobe Illus­tra­tor or GIMP)? Not on this Inter­net.

Editor features

Google Docs' Editor Features

Google Docs’ Edi­tor Fea­tures

Though the fea­tures of web-based doc­u­ment edi­tors are con­stant­ly improv­ing, and are darned impres­sive com­pared with what was pos­si­ble even a few years ago, you won’t find a web-based edi­tor that can remote­ly com­pete, fea­ture-for-fea­ture, with con­ven­tion­al desk­top- (or lap­top-) based soft­ware that’s installed direct­ly on your com­put­er.

Now, most peo­ple nev­er go beyond using the basic fea­tures of a desk­top-based appli­ca­tion, so you might not even miss those extra fea­tures. But if you want to do some­thing fan­cy in a col­lab­o­ra­tive mode, you might be out of luck.

File size and total space.

Uploading files to Google Docs

Upload­ing files to Google Docs

Every col­lab­o­ra­tive tool impos­es some lim­it on the total space you have available—at least for the free ver­sion of their prod­uct. The free plan for Google Docs, for exam­ple, lim­its you to 1GB of space and 500K per file.

Not that I’m com­plain­ing: that’s awe­some for free. You can buy more stor­age cheap, for exam­ple, $5/year for anoth­er 20GB, but noth­ing will get around the 500K lim­it on indi­vid­ual doc­u­ments. Oth­er ven­dors have sim­i­lar poli­cies.

Account required.

Zoho's Login Page

Zoho’s Login Page

All the online col­lab­o­ra­tive ser­vices that I know of require the col­lab­o­ra­tors to have their own accounts. That’s not the end of the world, of course, but per­haps you’ve joined me as a suf­fer­er of Account Fatigue Syn­drome. I swear, if I have to cre­ate anoth­er account for anoth­er ser­vice, I’ll… well, I’ll suf­fer.

For­tu­nate­ly, it’s get­ting increas­ing­ly com­mon for web­sites to let you sign in with cre­den­tials from oth­er sites: Yahoo, Face­book, Google, and the like. (Grant­ed, there are a few spe­cial­ized col­lab­o­ra­tion tools, for exam­ple sites that help you sched­ule meet­ings, that don’t require every­one to have accounts. But that’ll have to be anoth­er post.)

[online collaboration] minus [online] = [sad you]

Near­ly all of these ser­vices require an active inter­net con­nec­tion for you to see, edit, and col­lab­o­rate on the doc­u­ment. Inter­net down? Away from a wire­less hotspot? Ow. Google is drop­ping sup­port for offline edit­ing, though it plans to rein­tro­duce it even­tu­al­ly.

What You Gain

Despite the down­sides, the upsides are sweet.


Gymnasts standing on each others' shoulders

Chi­ro­prac­tors love it when we col­lab­o­rate.

That’s the whole point, right? We want to cre­ate some­thing with a friend or col­league. There’s just no oth­er prac­ti­cal way to do that.

Even if (per­ish the thought) you actu­al­ly sat next to your col­lab­o­ra­tor and pos­si­bly even spoke with them using your mouth and voice while work­ing on the doc­u­ment, both of you couldn’t real­ly edit the doc­u­ment at the same time. Of course there are oth­er huge col­lab­o­ra­tive ben­e­fits to sit­ting with your col­league as you work on the same doc­u­ment. But you know what? You can sit next to each oth­er with lap­tops and edit that Google Doc simul­ta­ne­ous­ly while you talk about it.

Toys and gadgets.

Adobe Buzzword's Document History Display

Adobe Buzzword’s Doc­u­ment His­to­ry Dis­play

Beyond the basic abil­i­ty for two peo­ple to edit a doc­u­ment, most sites let both peo­ple edit it at the same time, and some let them see each oth­ers’ changes in real time. Which, let me tell you, is a lit­tle spooky but very cool. In fact, Google Docs recent­ly announced that it’ll let 50 peo­ple edit the same doc­u­ment at once.

Besides work­ing on the doc­u­ment itself, most ser­vices give you a way to leave com­ments about spe­cif­ic parts of the doc­u­ment. Most ser­vices also let you see a his­to­ry of doc­u­ment revi­sions, and many let you revert the doc­u­ment to an ear­li­er ver­sion. Adobe Buzz­word has an espe­cial­ly attrac­tive and intu­itive time­line metaphor for review­ing and, if need­ed, rolling back changes.

No agreement needed.

PC Guy and Mac Guy Holding Hands

Ebony and Ivory

Ever tried col­lab­o­rat­ing on a doc­u­ment when one per­son has a PC and anoth­er has a Mac? Sure it’s pos­si­ble, and yes it even most­ly works if every­one is using the same soft­ware, typ­i­cal­ly Microsoft Office. But that’s “most­ly works” with empha­sis on “most­ly”, and if every­one doesn’t have the same soft­ware pack­age you’re out of luck.

Since online col­lab­o­ra­tion tools include web-based edit­ing soft­ware, everybody’s auto­mat­i­cal­ly using the same soft­ware. File com­pat­i­bil­i­ty prob­lems? Poof! An unhap­py mem­o­ry.

Anything anytime anywhere.

The flip side of the “sad you” equa­tion is that stor­ing your doc­u­ments on the Inter­net with web-based edi­tors means you can see and edit them almost any­place you can find a con­nect­ed web brows­er. That’s a lot of places.

Best of both.

You know that whole “pub­li­ca­tion vs. col­lab­o­ra­tion” dis­tinc­tion I’ve been draw­ing? While it’s a real dis­tinc­tion, some ser­vices sup­port both mod­els. Google Docs, for exam­ple, not only allows col­lab­o­ra­tive edit­ing, but will also let you upload Office doc­u­ments, for exam­ple, keep­ing them in their native form. While you can’t col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly edit those doc­u­ments (unless you let Google con­vert them into Docs for­mat), you can share them as you would with a file-shar­ing ser­vice.

Specific Tools

  • Google Docs. It’s the 500 pound goril­la of online col­lab­o­ra­tive file shar­ing, though not the best at every­thing. Still, giv­en the gen­er­ous free space allot­ment, the abil­i­ty to buy more cheap­ly, and the huge user and sup­port com­mu­ni­ty, it’d be a mis­take if you didn’t at least con­sid­er this option.
  • Zoho. A strong com­peti­tor to Google Docs, it actu­al­ly offers a much wider col­lec­tion of ser­vices than Google does. For exam­ple, Zoho offers wiki and data­base tools, where you’ll find noth­ing sim­i­lar at Google Docs.
  • Some­what more mod­est in its offer­ings than oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion suites, but also… well… slick­er. As in sali­vat­ing, fin­ger-twitch­ing, want-it-now slick­er. Buzz­word real­ly has three tools: Buzz­word (word pro­cess­ing), Tables (spread­sheet), and Pre­sen­ta­tions (Pow­er­Point), plus Adobe Con­nect, an excel­lent web con­fer­enc­ing pack­age. That’s mea­ger com­pared with Zoho’s 22-and-count­ing appli­ca­tions, but what Adobe lacks in depth it makes up in splash. Using its Adobe Air devel­op­ment plat­form, Adobe offers some drop-dead gor­geous and real­ly pret­ty intu­itive appli­ca­tions.
  • Hyper­Of­fice Anoth­er appli­ca­tion suite that hopes to replace in-house office and col­lab­o­ra­tion soft­ware for orga­ni­za­tions of all sizes.
  • Think­Free And anoth­er. ThinkFree’s spe­cial twist is that it lets you upload Microsoft Office doc­u­ments (Word, Excel, and Pow­er­Point) in their native for­mat, and then edit them direct­ly on the web with­out con­vert­ing them to a non-Microsoft for­mat.

Other Resources

If you think online col­lab­o­ra­tion tools are right for you, don’t take my word for all of this. Below are a few oth­er resources that might help you in decid­ing whether and how to share end edit doc­u­ments col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly online.

The first two are non­prof­it-focused. The oth­ers are for a gen­er­al audi­ence.

Post image cred­it: ryan­cr

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