If you are part of a business, sooner or later you want to be able to collaborate on a database with a colleague or customer. In the past, the easiest way to share a small database was to create a spreadsheet and email it to your collaborators. While this isn’t the best method, it has withstood more sophisticated competition.
For many people, the spreadsheet is still one of the most popular low-end database applications. The rubric of a table of rows and columns is easily understood and can easily be used as a way to view records and fields of a database. Plus, you don’t need to design special reports to view your data entries, and you can easily sort your data without having to create data dictionaries or other database structures, just use the appropriate Excel commands.
But emailing attachments can get tiresome, particularly if you have more than one collaborator. Having a specialized service that can share this data makes it easier, and you always have the current version of the data you are working on. Enter the online spreadsheet/database service provider.
Using these online spreadsheet services is very straightforward: you either copy and paste data or take your spreadsheet and upload it to the service, after creating accounts for you and your collaborators. Then you can make changes via your Web browser, no other software is required. Some of the services allow for more bells and whistles. Setup time is minimal; your data is properly protected by the service and safe from harm. And you don’t need to learn any Web/database programming skills either.
Pricing and support
When you decide on the particular service, it pays to read the fine print about pricing. There are discounts for annual subscriptions on most services. All of these services have 14-day or 30-day free trials to get started, so you can get a feel of what is involved in manipulating your data and how easy it is to make changes, produce reports, and receive notifications. TrackVia has a free plan that is a great way to get started with these services.
The downside is that some of these services can be pricey, as you add collaborators or different spreadsheets. Each service has different ways to count actual “users”. For example, if you want to jointly edit the same spreadsheet with two others — that usually counts as a three-user license. But if you want others to just view your data but not change it, these users usually don’t consume additional licenses.
Customer support can be extra too. TrackVia, HyperBase, and QuickBase all include phone support in their offerings, and TrackVia actually emails you automatically with the name and phone number of an account rep should you need additional help.
Let’s touch on some of the services’ distinguishing features. First is how they notify you of changes to your file’s content. Some services give you more control over how they will email you when one of your collaborators has made changes. Another feature is publishing your data, if you want to invite others to view it. While this throws all hope of security to the winds, for less-secure information it is a great way to start a collaboration process. Some services can design very sophisticated reports while others show you your data in the familiar grid layout that Excel uses.
Another thing to look for is how each service loads your data: with some, you can upload an Excel file from your hard drive, while with others you have to either import a comma separated file or manually cut and paste your data from your spreadsheet. Why is this important? If you have more than a simple table of numbers, cut and paste will probably not work and you will have some cleanup to do after the import.
Finally, there is the consideration of how much control they give you over the look and feel of your data. Some of the services, such as TrackVia and QuickBase have dozens of pre-built templates to help you get started with organizing your data, such as client contacts, issue tracking, or expense reports. The others you are left to be your own designer.
One caveat: Web services are constantly being changed, especially prices, as the vendors tweak their offerings. This analysis is based on what we saw in mid-April 2012, so do spend some of your own time checking out particular features that are deal-makers or breakers for you.
So what services are available?
Smartsheet.com $16/mo for 10 spreadsheets 3 GB
HyperBase $600 per year for 5 users
TrackVia.com Free for 5 users and 1 GB, paid plans available
Intuit QuickBase $299/mo for 10 users 1 GB for entry plan