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In today’s infinitely connected workplace, the iPhone’s popularity and usability make it a powerful platform for collaboration. With a few downloads from Apple’s App Store, you can be managing projects, updating your team, tracking progress and sharing documents from anywhere you can get a signal.
These 10 apps, all of which are compatible with iOS 3.0 and higher, are among the best out there for working with others. Best of all, most of them leverage the cloud to let you shift seamlessly between your phone and your desktop as you move in and out of the office.
Storing and sharing files
To do any significant work on an iPhone, you have to get around one major limitation: By design, third-party apps can’t share data with other apps. That’s why, for instance, you can’t open e-mail attachments in anything other than the Mail app’s built-in viewer.
Fortunately, there are plenty of clever programmers who have designed their apps to use the online storage and sharing services Box.net and Dropbox. As long as you have an account with one of those services, you can access and save files there. Each of these storage services also offers an iPhone app of its own that lets you manage your stored files by, among other things, organizing, sharing and setting permissions for them.
Box.net: Box.net has long been a popular online file storage service, and it gets better and better with each update. When you access the site on a computer, you can edit files with Zoho’s full-featured Web 2.0 office suite, use third-party plug-ins and much more.
The iPhone app allows you to share individual files or whole folders stored on Box.net, open files using the iPhone’s built-in file viewer, and leave comments on files. You can upload photos from the iPhone’s Camera Roll; we’ll be looking at applications that save other kinds of documents directly to Box.net below. (Of course, you can also add files from your computer by logging into your account at Box.net’s Web site.)
The Box.net app is free; Box.net’s free individual account offers 1GB of storage, with 10GB accounts starting at $10 a month.
Dropbox: Dropbox offers a different approach to file sharing, letting you sync files among your Windows, Mac and/or Linux computers and the Web, where you can share the files with others and monitor their changes. Dropbox creates a folder for automatic syncing on your computer(s). If you change any files in that folder or add any files to it, those changes will sync to other designated dropboxes.
You can create private subfolders that sync among your own computers, as well as shared subfolders that sync to clients, partners, teammates or anyone else you designate.
As with the Box.net app, the Dropbox iPhone app lets you manage your shared Dropbox files from your phone. You can assign files to team members or other collaborators and see when a file has been viewed or updated so you can keep up with what your teammates are doing.
You can also use the app to view files others have shared with you, but you can’t directly edit them or upload files of your own, except photos and videos from the Camera Roll. (Later in this story we’ll look at some iPhone apps that let you download, edit and upload files to and from your Dropbox account.) An Events view in the app highlights whenever a file has been added or modified.
The Dropbox app is free; Dropbox accounts offer 2GB of free storage, with paid accounts starting at 50GB for $10 per month or $99 per year.
Creating and editing files
Of course, you don’t want to be a passive observer as the rest of your team creates and modifies files — you want to do work, not watch others work. These elegant apps will help you leave the sidelines and get into the action.
iThoughts: Mind-mapping is a powerful brainstorming tool with which you free-associate ideas in an unstructured way, clump related concepts together and note relationships as they emerge. iThoughts ($7.99) from CMS is an intuitive mind-mapping app that leverages Box.net and Dropbox to allow you and your team members to share mind maps and build off one another’s ideas.
Mind maps can be exported and imported in iThoughts’ native format, or for team members who don’t have iPhones, in any file format used by the most popular mind-mapping applications: Freemind, Novamind, MindManager, XMind, iMindMap or Mindview. Or you can share finished mind maps as PDFs, images or OPML files, which many other apps can import.
One of the most interesting features is iThoughts’ built-in file server, which can be accessed over a Wi-Fi network from a computer’s browser, allowing you to download and upload files to and from the iPhone directly — perhaps a quicker way to share a mind map than having a dozen team members go to Box.net or their shared Dropbox folders. Mind maps can also be e-mailed as attachments.
Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite: For serious work, you need a serious office suite. Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite lets you view, edit and format word processing documents and spreadsheets and view presentations (editing is coming, according to the publishers)—just about all the capabilities you can handle on the iPhone’s small screen.
What makes it a great collaboration tool is its integration with Dropbox, Box.net and MobileMe, Apple’s paid file storage and syncing service, as well as with the Google Docs online office suite. Files can be opened from and saved back to any of these services, all of which let you selectively share documents with others. This makes it easy to review others’ work and make your own additions and edits.
Quickoffice also offers a work-around for e-mail attachments: Opening an attachment in the iPhone’s Mail app will only open it in the default viewer. But if you forward the e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org, Quickoffice will add them under the “E-Mail attachments” menu in Quickoffice. Then you can open and edit them in Quickoffice. Like iThoughts, Quickoffice can also be accessed over Wi-Fi using its built-in server; the IP address is listed at the bottom of the app’s main page.
Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite is $10; there’s also a free version called Quickoffice Connect, but it can’t save files.
Soonr: Soonr takes a slightly different approach to collaboration. The service integrates document sharing, reviewing and publishing into a backup application. To use Soonr, you install a Mac or Windows desktop client that automatically backs up designated folders whenever a file is changed.
Once your files are saved to Soonr’s cloud, you can log in via any Web browser and view, e-mail, fax, comment on or restore files. You can also create projects and add files to them so that they are shared with other members on the project, who can re-upload the file after editing it — Soonr keeps a full revision history.
With the iPhone app, Soonr users have access to most of the same functions aside from editing documents—files can be viewed, commented on, e-mailed, even printed via any computer running the Soonr application. The Soonr app is free; the service starts at $8 a month for three users and 10GB of storage (a free account offers 2GB storage and one user, without revision tracking).
Keeping everyone on your team on the same page can be a hassle; project management systems that allow tasks to be assigned, progress to be logged and milestones to be established can mean the difference between smooth sailing and a sinking ship. These applications act as front ends for popular project management tools, so being away from a computer doesn’t mean you have to be idle.
Outpost 2: Enormo’s Outpost 2 app brings the popular Basecamp project management service to your iPhone with a great interface that makes managing projects easy from the small screen. With complete support for Basecamp’s many features, Outpost 2 is about as full a project management tool as you can find on a mobile device.
You can add new projects and view existing ones, add and review milestones, create and check off tasks, and track the time you spend working on any given project. Tasks and projects can be assigned to team members and commented on as progress is made.
Outpost 2 also lets you access your Basecamp address book and integrate it with your iPhone contacts. You can use Basecamp’s internal messaging system to communicate with team members within the context of your project or send e-mail to any contact. An especially nice feature is the ability to manage several Basecamp accounts, making it easy to contribute to a partner’s or client’s project while managing your own.
Outpost 2 is $20. Basecamp offers a free plan for one project only with unlimited users but no file sharing; accounts that support multiple projects and file sharing start at $24 a month.
Huddle: Huddle offers a fuller feature set than Basecamp, with meeting scheduling, webconferencing and document editing integrated into the Web version. Projects are organized into workspaces and focus more on workflow than task assignment, although task management is still a major part of Huddle.
The Huddle iPhone app allows you to access your workspaces, review tasks, view and approve documents and connect with your contacts. The Huddle app is free; Huddle service starts at $8 per month for a single workspace with 1GB storage, then goes up to $40 per month for five workspaces and 250GB storage, and to $8 per user for 500 or more users with unlimited workspaces and storage.
Communicating with your team
Effective communication is key to collaboration, but it can be challenging when you’re out of the office. These apps help arrange, organize and integrate your communications to make working with your team more efficient.
Cisco WebEx Meeting Center: Cisco’s WebEx is one of the most popular conferencing services in the business world, offering live screen sharing along with teleconferencing and videoconferencing. The WebEx iPhone app brings a fairly complete teleconferencing experience to the iPhone’s screen, including screen sharing and in-conference instant messaging. If you have a WebEx account, you can even initiate meetings directly from your iPhone.
Even better, the iPhone app doesn’t require you to make a separate call to phone into the conference—once you join a WebEx meeting, you are automatically connected over VoIP. And with the new forward-facing cameras on the iPhone 4, you can even send your image.
The iPhone app is free; a WebEx account costs $49 per month, but you don’t need an account to join WebEx meetings via the iPhone, only to host your own.
Yammer: Enterprise microblogging platform Yammer lets businesses set up a private, Twitter-like service, allowing for the open exchange of ideas, links and documents within a select network of people. Like Twitter, Yammer lets users post status updates and receive them in a constant flow, but Yammer users aren’t bound by Twitter’s 140-character limit. In addition, files of all sorts can be attached directly to status updates, making document sharing and collaboration easy.
Unlike Twitter users, who usually broadcast to everyone, Yammer users can set up both internal and external groups to communicate with directly. It’s a great way for project teams to send quick status updates, documents and other information to their team members.
The Yammer app shows all the feeds you’re subscribed to and your @ replies, along with a directory of all users in your network. The Yammer app is free; the basic Yammer service is also free, but most companies will want to opt for a paid plan, starting at $3 per user per month (volume discounts are available), for better administrative, security and support tools.
Smart Recorder: Smart Recorder from Roe Mobile Development (RMD) is a supercharged version of the iPhone’s Voice Notes audio recording app. It lets you tag recordings, bundle them with notes and photos, and share them via Box.net or using Smart Recorder’s built-in server. Use the app to record and share voice memos, lectures, conversations and meetings with your team.
While recording or during playback, you can add tags and photos to specific time points—tapping the tag or photo will take you back to the point in the recording where the tag or photo was added. Recordings are exported as .caf (Core Audio Format) files, an Apple format that can be played back on any computer using QuickTime.
Smart Recorder is $3; a free lightweight version can record indefinitely but only export recordings of less than three minutes.
Your turn: What are your favorite iPhone apps for collaboration? Let us know in the article comments.
[Logan Kugler is a frequent Computerworld contributor. His most recent article was “8 essential privacy extensions for Firefox.”