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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Web application is right gift for those who fear software

December 11, 2006

Got a businessperson on your list? We're hard to buy for, so you have my sympathies. Most of us have specific preferences in software, handheld devices, cell phones and other toys we euphemistically call "tools."

Ties aren't common in business settings anymore, cutting off yet another formerly fruitful buying channel. Few of us have any use for another desktop nameplate. And gift certificates are rather cold.

Software is a particularly bad gift choice. Most of us dread getting new software loaded and operating. We do it only when we can't avoid the task any longer. I've never known anyone to get a new boxed set of office programs and dance excitedly around the room. New software is arduous to implement, no matter how easy manufacturers try to make it for us.

That is, unless the software is actually running somewhere else, and all you do is log onto a site to run it. These programs, known as "Web applications," are widely available, cheap and good enough to be worth a look by serious businessfolk. And thanks to their low prices and monthly billing, you can get one or more on a trial basis.

37Signals (www.37signals.com), for example, has a suite of Web applications (known to the incorrigible contractionists as "Webapps") that duplicate most of the functions of much more expensive software. Its collaboration product Basecamp can track time, record milestone progress, share files and keep to-do lists, all for between free and $149 per month, depending on how many projects you need to run. Closely related to Basecamp is Backpack, an organizer, and Campfire, a standout multi-user instant-messaging service.

Businessweek (www.businessweek.com) listed both Basecamp and Backpack among its "Best of the Web" picks for 2005. To give one or more as a Christmas present, log onto the site, establish an account, then pay for a few months of capability that's a cut above what's available for free. It encourages your gift recipient to try it when he knows there's money at stake.

Task Meister (www.taskmeister.com) offers a product of the same name that manages business tasks, holding information into 14 separate characteristics of each task, including estimated time to completion, priority, numbers of billable and actual hours, and linkages to related tasks. In effect, it's much like Microsoft Project without as much complexity. Just as with 37Signals, Task Meister has a free period, although it's limited to 30 days.

Several companies offer sales and marketing Webapps. These services often call themselves "CRM," for "customer relationship management." We used to just call them leads or contact managers. Shows what we knew.

StudioCRM (www.studiocrm.com) is a three-part offering that includes Contact-Studio, SalesStudio and ServiceStudio, although you can get one by itself. StudioCRM has a 30-day free trial period.

The big player in the CRM arena is Salesforce (www.salesforce.com). There's no doubt these guys want the online business; their phone number is (800) no-software. Getting a trial of the base package is easy. There are big red links to the sign-up page. But if you want to find out what you're going to get, be prepared to slog.

Success has made Salesforce's Web site turgid with text extolling the product in every paragraph. Bullet points have swollen to cannonball size. It's sometimes hard to tell what's offered in which package. But it's clear enough that Salesforce has lots to offer, if you're willing to upgrade from the "team" level.

Although Salesforce has a good enough reputation for serving the little guy, it's also plain that it wants the enterprise market even more. Of its four packages, the baselevel "team" is the only one with a user-number limit of 10. The others have no limits and have far more features than the "team" level, including a product catalog, territory management, lead and campaign management, contract management, and dashboards.

Webapps have their sparkly-eyed advantages and their dismal drawbacks. You don't need to load much, if any, software on your own computer. You can instantly begin sharing information, schedules, leads and sales data with anyone, anywhere in the world. Every Webapp company offers a free trial, although setting up such a "sandbox" where you can try it out can be a trial in itself, because it will inevitably be parallel to the real work. Even dummy data takes time to type in. If you tire of your Webapp, it can be difficult to migrate your data to a new one. And it gives some businessfolk the willies thinking of their data being on some distant server where a competent thief can steal it, or a passing hurricane might destroy it altogether.

Still, tens of thousands of users can't all be wrong, and I've long wondered why more people don't turn these free trials into Christmas presents. In fact, I might give one myself this year.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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