Every time I wake up and check my email before having a cup of coffee, I wonder if having a constant connection to the collective information space is a good thing. I can remember a time before I had three email addresses that I could check from my phone, but sometimes a fresh perspective is in order.
What new tools and resources are out there to make life easier for little or no cost? The Internet has grown a whole new set of organs for communication and sharing over the last couple of years. The idea now is end-user-supplied content: sites and networks like YouTube (www.youtube.com), MySpace (www.myspace.com), Skype (www.skype.com), Flickr (www.flickr.com), and others have threatened to upset traditional economic and social frameworks. Happily, they all have useful applications. YouTube is a dandy way to share video files. You can even make a clip private so only members of your group can view it. Flickr and Kodak's Easy Share (www.kodakgallery.com) make sharing even easier. MySpace is one of the best free marketing and business networking tools around. Of course, at the moment, that only applies if your target audience or colleagues are under 25, but give it six months. And, at this point, even the terminally techno-phobic among us are feeling the pull of free/cheap Internet telephony from Skype or installing web cams to take advantage of iChat's (www.apple.com) video conferencing features.
Yet, above and beyond (or possibly behind or below) these mainstream sites, there are a host of other, smaller sites and applications breaking new ground in usefulness. You have to go looking for these, but they're worth the effort.
Need to send a file too large for most email inboxes, but either you or your recipient doesn't have an FTP client? Try YouSendIt.com to send files up to 1GB for free by automatically attaching a download link to the outgoing email. (Of course, you can also use the direct connection of a messenger client's file transfer option, but you both have to be online).
Need to create, edit, or send a letter, spreadsheet, or brochure, but you don't have your office software with you, or maybe you'd rather just not pay Microsoft a lot of cash for something they'll update next year anyway with a lot of features you don't need? Try GOffice.com where, for $0.99 a month, without a download, you can create documents, publications, spreadsheets, and (coming soon) presentations that can then be saved as PDF and faxed or mailed for free.
Online storage isn't new, but it deserves mention. At sites like Streamload.com or Box.net, you can store gigabytes securely online for free. For people who need to store a lot of audio or video, the free versions of these sites can be a little constrictive, but most can upgrade to usable limits for around $5 a month.
My favorite new services are the online collaboration sites. LetsPowwow.com lets you download a free version of an application that allows you to host networked conferences of up to ten people with whom you can share your computer desktop (regardless of content) and chat via audio. You can even hand over control of your mouse and keyboard to let someone else draw, write, move, or otherwise edit materials on your computer. Another free application in this vein is Moon Edit (www.moonedit.com). It allows multiple people to edit a single text document simultaneously, each with their own color text.
As far as freeware goes, things are starting to live up to the adage, “No matter what software you pay $400 for, there are three free applications to do the same thing.” Check out FreewareHome.com or old favorite Download.com for a huge list of small apps that do stuff you never knew you could get for free/cheap.
More favorites: Life2Go (www.download.com) is a small app that syncs files in preset folders to your iPod whenever you connect it to your computer. Though it's not free, Movie Montage from FindleyDesigns.com is a cheap lifesaver for anyone who has to deal with lots of QuickTime movies. It arranges sets of movies in thumbnail panes that will play full-motion previews with a mouse rollover. No more opening 50 movies to find the right one. My recent favorite is Real VNC (www.realvnc.com). It allows you to share desktops over a LAN. The free version doesn't allow client computers to affect the host files, but it still makes a handy designer's remote for programs like Watchout.
Of course, the 800lb gorilla in the room of web usefulness is Google. What did we ever do without it? Maps, shopping, email, videos, images. My favorite new addition from Google Labs (labs.google.com) is Spreadsheets, a fully functional Excel-type program that can be used by multiple people at once and exported to Excel or generic (.csv) format. Also, Google just purchased (and is relocating) Writely.com, a web-based word processor. You can even use a third-party extension from www.viksoe.dk/code/gmail.htm (Windows) or gdisk.sourceforge.net (Mac) to turn your Gmail account into an online hard drive.
I'm sure I have only covered about 1% of what's out there. I'll try to keep track, but if you have favorites or suggestions, please send them.
Jake Pinholster is a freelance designer and professor of media design for the School of Theatre and Film at Arizona State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.