5 free tools for collaboration with remote teams

Technology has made it easier than ever to telecommute or work with remote teams. At b5media, we have people working from around the world, and have tried and used dozens of tools to make that work go smoother.

Everyday, there are new tools that show promise, but many are tried once and forgotten about. Some are clunky or get in the way of collaboration. Others are a solution in need of a problem. Here are some of the best ones that have gone past the trial, and turned into must-have tools that we use every day.

Cost: free
Skype is best known as a telephone replacement. Sure, being able to make free skype calls anywhere in the world is nice, but that isn’t the real killer app from a collaboration perspective. The best kept secret about Skype is its use in Instant Messaging. Just like Messenger, AIM, or Google Talk, you can create a text chat bewteen people. You can even create a group chat within your team. The one feature you won’t find elsewhere though, is the ability to bookmark these conversations. This means that if someone is offline, when they return they will see the entire conversation they have missed and are able to catch up. With a team spread over multiple timezones, this is really useful, and you never have to worry about being left out of the conversation because you happen to be offline at the time.

Cost: free
Video conference calls add that human touch to a remote team. If everyone has a webcam installed, Tokbox is a really elegant interface to show a “Brady Bunch” style display of your team during a meeting. We’ve used it with up to 6 people, but in theory, you could have many more. With folks scattered around the continent, being able to talk with them face-to-face makes a big difference! We don’t use this for every call, but from time to time it’s really nice to remind us all that we’re all people working as a team.

Cost: free
Skype is great for a short, purpose driven call, but Teamspeak turns voice chat into more of a virtual office. It is client/server software, which means you need hosting, but most Internet companies already have access to servers with extra capacity. Load up the server and you can now have a “push-to-talk” style conversation with your whole team. Have the team hanging out in a Teamspeak channel, and hitting a button is the virtual equivalent to poking your head over the cubicle wall for a quick question. It allows those quick, informal, water-cooler conversations to happen despite the distance. Since it’s a push-to-talk setup, you won’t be burning up bandwidth having a skype call active all day with mostly silence.

Cost: free
There are many desktop-sharing applications out there, but the good ones like WebEx or GoToMeeting cost a lot of money. Yugma is a free solution with all the features of the commercial solutions, including multiple viewers, and both Windows and Mac compatibility. A software download is only needed for the host, not for clients. Desktop sharing is useful for everything from viewing a powerpoint presentation to having several people doing a code review. One person hosts the meeting, and shares his screen, and everyone else can see, in real-time, what is on that screen. Combined with Teamspeak or a Skype call, and you can really see what we’re talking about.

Google docs
Cost: free
Google Docs are a great, free way of maintaining your documents or spreadsheets without using Microsoft Office, however there is also a huge advantage to having documents existing online in the cloud instead of within an application on one computer. Collaboration with Google Docs, specifically Google Spreadsheets, is as easy as inviting others to the document. If two (or 5.. or 50) people open a spreadsheet at the same time, they can all edit individual cells and others will see their changes immediately. If your team needs a common checklist, or you need to get information from many people, this is the easiest and most real-time way of setting this up. Google Documents can also have multiple people editing, but the experience isn’t as slick as the cell-locking based system in Spreadsheets.

These are the five that we use and have stuck with over time. There are many others that we have tried, and haven’t found as useful, but other organizations may. Which tools do you use within your work environment?

Toolbox – Twitter Apps

Twitter has become my primary way of getting news these days.  News sites require you to go and look for information.  With twitter, if the news is important, it will find me.

But what makes twitter so powerful is the cottage industry of tools that have popped up using the API to make your Tweeting life easier.  There is much debate about the best tools to use, but here’s my 5 tools I can’t live without.

twhirl1. Twhirl
Twhirl is a desktop client built on the Adobe Air platform so that you can tweet and monitor your friends tweets. Some would argue that Tweetdeck is better if you follow alot of people, but Twhirl gets my vote.


2. Twitterberrytwitterberry
Viewing and sending tweets on the Blackberry allows you to take Twitter on the road.  You could just go to twitter.com in your browser, but loading up Twitterberry makes life so much easier!


3. Twitterific for iPhone 
Iconfactory has released their Mac-based Twitterific for the iPhone, and, of course, it also works on the iPod Touch.  Definately the prettiest way to keep up with your tweets.


4. Twitterfeed
Twitterfeed monitors the RSS feed for your blog (or whatever) and posts to your twitter account every time there is a new post.

5. Tweetlater
Cool Twitter toolset which allows you to schedule items to tweet at a scheduled time, as well as other cool tools, like autofollowing, or sending follow thank-you DMs.

What’s in your toolbox?

5 things every web developer should know about IE8

The next version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, version 8 went to Beta 2 yesterday, on its final path to release, probably this fall (although Microsoft hasn’t announced a final release date yet).  Although I almost exclusively use Firefox for my browser, anyone that is designing or developing sites needs to be aware of some of the changes coming in version 8. 

I got my hands on the beta at a preview demo on Tuesday, and there are definitely important changes from a users perspective, but from my view, we need to be aware of the changes under the hood.  After meeting with the folks from Microsoft Canada and chatting with Pete LePage, Product Manager for Internet Explorer from Redmond, here are some of the most important changes from a web development perspective:

1. It is coming

Latest estimates put Internet Explorer at over 70% of the browser market.  When IE8 is released, it will be pushed as part of Windows Update and all new computers will come with it pre-loaded.  It is your parents browser, and let’s face it, that’s a pretty big audience.  We need to be sure that both our existing sites and newly built ones look okay.

2. It is standards compliant

Or so they say.  According to LePage, Internet Explorer 8 is fully compliant with CSS 2.1.  In fact, he says that every developer had a printout of the W3C spec on their desk for quick reference, and that as the team went through and found areas of ambiguity, they submitted changes back to the W3C. 

The main problem is that the interpretation of the written spec is somewhat subjective, so we will still see areas where pages behave slightly different between browser types.  It is still encouraging that Microsoft has embraced the standards and are working to bring their browser closer to the industry standards.

3. It has a new rendering engine

Obviously, by default, pages are displayed using the IE8 rendering engine, but a new "Compatibility View" feature allows you to specify which engine to use in your HTML.  IE8 ships with the IE7 engine built in, so that you can view your pages in the older browser without having to have multiple computers.  The IE8 rendering engine does behave differently from IE7.  This means that even within the Internet Explorer family, pages could look different, not to mention the differences to Firefox, Opera, Safari and others. 

4. It has developers tools built in

For those of you that swear by Firebug, IE8 has built that functionality into the browser.  You can edit your HTML in a docked window just like Firebug and view your changes as you make them.  It also includes a Javascript debugger and page profiler so you can see which parts of your page take longest to load.

5. It has new features to promote your sites

In addition to RSS, IE8 introduces the concept of Web Slices that you can define on your pages to allow users to subscribe to a specific part of your site, perhaps a recent posts, or friends update box.  Deployment of Web Slices simply involves setting a specific CSS tag to the box you wish.  For the more ambitious, IE8 introduces Accelerators and visual search suggestions so that you can build applications that your users can use to interact with your information. 

Firefox still seems to be the browser of choice for web developers, but it’s always important to test your sites in the browser that most of your audience is using. 

Cheap Hosting + Cheap Software = Secure Offsite Backups

Okay, we all know that we should be backing up our computers regularly. We have our entire lives on these machines. All of my digital pictures, music, every word document and spreadsheet I’ve done in the last 15 years. If I were to lose that data… well, I don’t even want to think about it. Here, we’ll look at a dirt cheap way to automate your backups to a secure offsite location. Continue reading “Cheap Hosting + Cheap Software = Secure Offsite Backups”

Joost is television on the internet… plus more.

The folks that brought us Kazaa to disrupt the music industry, then Skype to disrupt the telephone industry, now have a new target, and the cable and satellite folks have got to be watching closely.

Joost is the new product out that is offering streaming IPTV to your computer through the internet. They are currently in beta, and early reports are that it is slick! I would expect nothing less from these guys. It’s not just about taking television content and putting it on the net, it is about using the communications medium to its fullest potential and making the television experience better!

The beta is currently invite only, and I haven’t received an invite (*hint hint* for anyone that has an extra 🙂 ), so I can’t speak from experience, but I anticipate that we’ll be hearing alot of these guys in the coming months.

Optimizing your site

If your site is running slowly, and you are not sure what parts of it are taking a long time to download, take a peek at the OctaGate SiteTimer. Just plop in a URL, and it will download the page, including all images and javascript, and display a timeline so that you know which elements are downloading slowly.


Search for a domain name

My favourite site for searching for available domain names is Instant Domain Search. It uses AJAX to search the availability of the name as you type it. It’s really fast, so it’s good if you are trying many variations.

It seems however, to simply do an NSLookup to determine availability. That means that if a name is registered, but not pointing anywhere, it will show up as available, even if you can’t now register it. This is a pretty rare occurance, so I still use it, but just be aware.

Generated Color Wheel

I can code a website with my eyes closed, but when it comes to picking colors or a design, I defer to the more creative types. Whether picking colors for a website, or decorating a room, I can never seem to put the right colors together.

Colorschemer has a tool that will allow you to pick one color, and it will automatically generate a color wheel that fits, even providing you with the HTML hex codes to drop into your CSS.

I’m sure the experienced designers will thumb their nose at this, but for those of us with little color co-ordination, it is a great starting point!

IM in the Workplace

Few technologies, including the web itself, have taken off as quickly as Instant Messaging. When people bring IM into the workplace, however, it can be both a productivity enhancer or a distraction. Certainly it acts as a hybrid between email and the telephone, giving the immediate response of the telephone with the no-nonsense, down-to-business attitude of email.

I have used IM as a great communication tool for use between co-workers in other locations, or even to talk with the guy on the late shift who doesn’t come in for a few hours yet, but has IM access at home. Paranoid IT sorts will complain about security and encryption, as well as the attraction for abuse. In recent months teaching at a local community college, I found that IM acts as a 21st century way of passing notes between wired students.

Whether for better or worse, IM has very quickly evolved into a tool that has become part of our computing lives. I believe it’s for the better. Blocking IM access in the workplace isn’t the answer. Embrace it as a tool. If people don’t do their job and spend the day chatting with their friends, that is a management problem, not a technology one.