Eight mobile services that keep you effective everywhere

Meeting with clients. Visiting suppliers. Presenting at trade shows. You have a lot of work to do outside the office. Fortunately, staying productive when you’re mobile is getting easier, thanks to Web-based services.
Each of the following eight mobile tools can help you more efficiently manage some aspect of your business while on the go–without your having to fire up your laptop. Many of the services are free. Like any software or service, however, these tools each have some limitations, and may not appeal to everyone.

Access Company Information by Text Message

Short Message Service (SMS), or text messaging, isn’t just for teenagers anymore, and Teragram’s MyGads.com is a prime example of SMS’s benefits for business users.

MyGads.com lets you create a Web-based repository of data, such as employee and partner phone numbers, shared calendar events, and wiki-style information about your company’s products or services. You can set up multiple “Gads”; each Gad is a set of text or HTML-formatted information, such as a calendar or a phone list.

Using natural-language queries, you can retrieve information from your Gads by sending an SMS message from your cell phone, or by using a Web browser or instant messaging application. You can create and update Gads using the same access methods.

For collaboration purposes, you can share each Gad with a specific group of people. Access to your Gads can be password protected, with varying privileges (such as the ability to update) assigned to different users. For example, you could give employees the ability to access and update your company’s phone directory while denying that access to anyone outside the firm.

MyGads.com can be particularly helpful for grabbing information on the go. The service, currently free, is expected to be supported by advertising at some point.

Get Alerts When Important Clients E-Mail You

Every day, countless e-mail messages swarm your in box. Wouldn’t it be nice to receive an alert when an message arrives from one of your top clients?

That’s the idea behind TeleFlip, a free new service. TeleFlip will automatically forward e-mail from people you specify, as SMS messages to your cell phone.

Due to SMS’s length limitations, e-mail messages are broken into text messages of no more than 120 characters each. Unfortunately, that means that a lengthy e-mail will arrive as multiple text messages, and not necessarily in the correct order.

You can’t view attachments, for obvious reasons. And unless you have an unlimited text plan, your cell phone service charges could quickly accumulate. Nonetheless, for instant alerts of messages from important business contacts, TeleFlip could be a lifesaver.

Retrieve Your PC’s Files, Using Your Phone

Given the risks and hassles of carrying a laptop, traveling without one is tempting. Inevitably, though, if you’ve gone on a trip and left your laptop at home, you’ll wish that you had brought a particular Word document or other file with you.

That’s where a remote-access service such as WebEx PCNow comes in.

In its most recent incarnation, WebEx PCNow version 4.0 (which costs US$10.35 per month) allows you to view and access files residing on your Windows-based PC or Mac via the Web browser on any other computer. You can also access files remotely through any mobile Web browser, such as those on Treos, BlackBerry devices, and iPhones.

Using your smart phone, you can share documents on your office PC with others; view Outlook calendar entries, contacts, and e-mail; and search your computer’s hard drive. And you can make Skype calls from your mobile device, too–even if your smart phone doesn’t support the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service.

A reality check: Remotely accessing your computer’s hard drive, especially with a smart phone (which lacks the high-powered processor of a PC), can be sluggish.

Track Expenses on the Go

Intuit’s new Quicken Online is a $3-per-month service that lets you enter expenditures and track budgets and expenses from any computer or mobile Web browser.

Though the service has been optimized for the Apple iPhone Safari browser, the same is not yet true for other mobile Web browsers. (Sites optimized for mobile browsers tend to draw and refresh more quickly and look better when viewed on small screens.)

With Quicken Online, you can aggregate and categorize all your online account transactions; create charts showing income and expenses; and add, delete, and edit categories.

Quicken Online may be attractive to sole proprietors for tracking business-travel expenses for tax purposes, as the service can export data to Intuit’s TurboTax software. The service is not designed for companies needing QuickBooks or other, more-robust business tools, however.

Keep Tabs on Your Time

Hourly-rate professionals need an easy way to track their time, especially when they’re visiting clients or performing other tasks away from their computers.

A free service called myHours.com provides time-tracking tools, for individuals and companies, that are accessible on any computer via a Web browser. You can define clients, projects, and tasks; set an hourly rate; generate reports; and export them to Excel.

myHours Mobile, a new addition to the service, is currently in public beta. You can log in to the service from any mobile browser, and then start and stop the clock on a project and tasks. (But before you can do that, you must first define those projects and tasks using the full-blown myHours.com service in a PC browser.)

The myHours.com service is fairly basic: You can’t generate invoices based on your hours tracked, for example. And the company’s Web site indicates that it will eventually charge for its services (though it doesn’t indicate when). But for simple time tracking, myHours.com and its mobile component may be all you need.

Real-Time Travel Updates

As any traveler knows all too well, flights can be delayed or even cancelled at a moment’s notice. MobiMate’s WorldMate Live, a $10-per-month service for BlackBerry users launched last fall, is designed to help travelers navigate around such unexpected twists.

Before your trip, enter the details of your itinerary into WorldMate Live’s Web site. Another option is to download MobiMate’s Outlook add-on program, which lets you export confirmation e-mail messages relevant to your trip into the WorldMate Live site.

Once your itinerary is set, you’ll automatically receive alerts and updates relevant to the itinerary on your BlackBerry.

In our tests, WorldMate Live worked well. The service, recently upgraded, now offers useful new features such as better integration between the itinerary manager and BlackBerry Maps.

WorldMate Live provides lots of other travel tools–weather reports, a currency converter, world clocks–that are also found in the WorldMate Professional software/service for other mobile OSs.

Free versions of WorldMate are available for most smart phones (except Palm OS devices), but they don’t include the paid version’s travel alerts or satellite weather images.

Another option is Orbitz’s Traveler Update, which gives you an at-a-glance view of your flight status, current security wait times, local traffic, weather, and other information for U.S. airports.

The free service combines user-generated content with information from the FAA and other authorities. You can also receive text-message alerts regarding flight status and use the service on a mobile or desktop Web browser.

Visual Voice Mail Without an iPhone

Apple’s iPhone made headlines last year for, among other things, offering Visual Voicemail–the ability to view a list of voice-mail messages and select only those you need to hear now. The GotVoice service aims to do the same for various devices.

GotVoice is available in three versions: the free ad-supported Lite, which converts audio messages into MP3s accessible only from the GotVoice Web site; Premium ($10 monthly), which forwards your voice mail as MP3 files attached to e-mail and also transcribes voice mail into text; and Professional (available at various rates), designed for small-business needs.

Having voice mail you’ve received on multiple phones–including your cell phone–forwarded as e-mail to your smart phone is extremely convenient. GotVoice also lets you simultaneously broadcast a brief voice message to multiple phone numbers, a quick way to alert colleagues about an urgent business matter.

The Premium and Professional plans automatically check your voice mail every 30 minutes and then forward those messages, according to the service’s creators. But in one of our tests, GotVoice took nearly 12 hours to forward an e-mail with a transcription and MP3 attachment.

Other voice mail messages in our tests were forwarded much more quickly, however. Also, it’s worth noting that subscribers of AT&T, Verizon, and other cell-phone service providers can have unanswered calls immediately forwarded to GotVoice.

This feature will eliminate the need to wait every 30 minutes for GotVoice to retrieve messages, according to a GotVoice spokesperson. If you decide to use the service, keep in mind that each forwarded call will eat into your voice-plan minutes.

Find Wi-Fi Hotspots

Waiting for your laptop to boot up, just to determine if a Wi-Fi network is nearby, is no one’s idea of efficiency. A better option: Use your cell phone to search for nearby hotspots.

To use the free JiWire Hotspot Finder for Cell Phones service, type wap.4info.net in your mobile browser. In the Search field, type hotspots and the location (you can use zip and area codes).

The search results will include the hotspot location’s name (such as Starbucks), its street address, and whether the Wi-Fi access is free. You then click the Directions To link to get driving directions to the hot spot.

You can also have information on Wi-Fi network locations sent to you as SMS messages. The JiWire service is fairly basic: You can’t search specifically for Wi-Fi networks at a particular airport, for one thing. But it beats firing up a laptop.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin writes the Mobile Computing column for PCWorld.com.

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