Exchanging documents by e-mail is commonplace in business because it seems so easy, but there are two recurring problems:

  • There is no easy way to track documents traveling by e-mail. The controls in Microsoft Word for tracking changes are complex (most people ignore them), and there’s no easy way to tell who has control of the most recent version of a document. Many people open file attachments directly from Outlook and don’t realize the temporary copy of the file that’s open won’t be stored in the company’s normal file folders until it’s explicitly saved there.
  • The e-mail system is not designed for large files. Offices bravely create 25Mb PDF files, then can’t figure out how to share them with anyone.

There are many services that want to help solve those problems. Let me try to simplify the options. The services I mention are just examples!

  1. For a one-way transmittal, use a service like YouSendIt.com. The file is copied to an online server; you send the recipient a password; the recipient receives a link to download the file. Very easy for sender & recipient; free or nearly free.
  2. For collaboration back and forth on a small number of files, use a service like XDrive. The files are copied to an online server; you give the recipient permission to open or edit the files, and send the recipient a link. Files appear as they do in your office, stored in various folders. Moderately easy; sometimes requires a similar learning curve for recipients; free or nearly free.
  3. For frequent collaboration with the same people, services like WebEx WebOffice allow online file storage plus document management and online meetings. Moderately difficult; similar learning curve (and possible cost) for recipients; monthly fee.

XDrive was purchased recently by AOL and has some very appealing features. Free, easy registration gets 5Gb of storage space and a polished web interface. Any kind of file can be uploaded, and an individual file can be as large as 2.5Gb. Individual files can be shared by a link in an e-mail message; the first 5 people to retrieve an individual file can do so immediately, without being required to sign up for an XDrive account of their own. Entire folders can be shared, although the recipients then have to get their own login name and password.

This puts XDrive way ahead of Microsoft’s Windows Live SkyDrive, which is currently limited to 500Mb and won’t accept an individual file larger than 50Mb. Windows Live Skydrive requires everyone to have a Windows Live ID, even a casual recipient of a single file. Windows Live ID is also just a free system for creating a login name and password – but there’s something about it that confuses people.

(I hope you appreciate how confusing it is to recommend something owned by America Online. It goes against all my instincts.)

Google is due to jump into this space. It currently offers generous online file storage space but only for Google Mail accounts and Picasa photo storage. Many people expect Google to roll out free file storage soon as a way to direct attention to its office word processing and spreadsheet applications.

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