Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 1 - The Google Web Things

posted Dec 22, 2009, 6:30 PM by John Werner   [ updated Dec 23, 2009, 12:18 PM ]
I wouldn't say I am frugal, but I am certainly careful on how I spend my money.  I'd rather drive a very good condition, used car and take my family out to eat than struggle to make a new car payment and wonder how I am going to afford groceries.  Now that I find myself "between jobs," I'm even more careful about how and where I spend my money.

With my love of computers and software, one might think that I spend a lot of money on them.  Actually, I don't.  I don't even resort to software piracy.  It's not the legal issues that bother me with that, it's the moral ones:  I used to write software for a living, and if I were to steal some one else's work, wouldn't I being saying it was alright if my work was stolen?  So, how do I do it?  Simple, I look for the free alternatives.

So, what are these alternatives.  That's what this series of articles is about.  All of these software tools I mention are free (or nearly free) to use.  With only one or two exceptions, they are all things I use and would hardily recommend to others.   The tools range everywhere from e-mail clients to mapping software to translation services to photo-albums to calendars.  Some tools are web based, and some run on your own computer, and I'm not just talking Windows PC -- Max and Linux users can use them also. Unfortunately, there are also some tools that I have just not found a good alternative to, and I will cover those in a future article and point out the best of the alternatives I have found.

Having spent so much time on the introduction, I think it is time to get down to business.   Fortunately, Google provides a great place to start.

The Google Web Things

I'll start with one of the biggest and most cross-functional tools I have found:  Google.   The name itself has become synonymous with searching the web: "I'll just 'Google' around for a good site."  Apart from being a blatant misuse of a trade name (much like Xerox is a company, not a verb for making photocopies), it is also a complete understatement.  Google is massive.  Let's look at just some of the free tools you could be using right now to run your business.

Google Maps - http://maps.google.com
If you have never tried Google Maps, you owe it to yourself to see just how powerful a web application it is.  Need to find some place?  Just surf to http://maps.google.com, enter the address, and let the map pop up.  It will even give you directions on how to or from get there.  

That's all good, but that's just the start.  It's also great for finding things.  Let's say your in Fairport, NY and want some pizza, just go to Google Maps and do a search for "Pizza in Fairport, NY".  If you click on the link, you'll see just how many pizza places I have to choose from!

Gmail - http://www.gmail.com
Gmail is Google's answer to e-mail.  It offers a free email that you can read from the web or download to you favorite e-mail reader on your PC, handheld, or phone.  Storage space is virtually unlimited (I'm currently using 13M of my 7404 MB!), and the SPAM catching if well above par.  It also interfaces directly with Google Chat, so you can IM your friends or business associates quickly and easily.

Google Calendar - http://calendar.google.com
Need a calendar you can access from anywhere and that you can share with others, Google comes to the rescue.  You can create and edit events right through your favorite web browser.  You can also share calendars with others.  If you wish to take your calendar with you, you can synchronise it easily with most other calendar applications.  I actually keep the calendar on my Nokia n810 Internet Tablet synced with with my Google calendar so my family knows what I'm up to.

Google Voice - http://voice.google.com

This is probably my current favorite Google application.   It has just come out of Beta, and it is really cool.

Imagine what it would be like if you could give everyone who wanted to talk to you just one phone number they could call you on and that phone number would reach you whether or not you were at home, in the office, in the car, or even just sitting at Borders surfing the web while sipping on your latte.  That's what Google Voice does.  Google Voice provides you with a phone number of your choosing which will automatically connect to any phone(s) you choose.  You can tell Google Voice what "phones" to ring when it gets a call so that you can answer it on whatever is most convenient.  For most people, the cost of this is Free [there are some "special" area codes that for various reasons are not free].  I should also mention, that a phone might even be a VOIP client like Gizmo.

To augment the simple phone forwarding, there are a host of other cool features including transcribing voice mail, and free long distance.   "What free long distance?"  Yes.  Google Voice allows you to place a call through it's website.  How it does this is that you tell it both the number you call and which of your phone you want it connected to.  It then rings you phone.  When you answer, it starts ringing the phone at the phone number your are calling.

The transcribing voice mail is a feature I have grown to love.  If you fail to answer a call to your Google Voice number, it will go to voice mail.  You can set up Google Voice to transcribe the voice mail and forward it to your e-mail and/or even send it as an SMS message to your cell phone.  You can also listen to it through a web browser.

Google Documents - http://docs.google.com
Imagine being able to edit and share text documents and spreadsheets on-line.  That's what Google Documents allows you to do.   Google Documents integrates with Gmail, so you can view and edit that MS Word (tm) document right from your web browser.  I'd like to say more about it, but I really haven't used it that much.  I prefer OpenOffice.org running on a real computer over the web experience.

Google Sites - http://sites.google.com
Need a website for free?  Google to the rescue.  Google Sites allows you to create your own websites.  These sites are hosted by Google.   How well does it work?  that depends what you are looking for.   It wouldn't work well for the full out version of The Snow Tire FAQ (http://www.snowtire.info)* which I run, but it does work well for other sites, like the one you are reading now..

(* at the time of this writing, The Snow Tire FAQ is running on 2 of the 8 cylinders as I switch hosting providers yet again :-( )


Part 1 Conclusion

As you can see, Google is more than just a search engine.  It's a way of life.  I have covered just a few of the web based Google tools.  In the next installment, I will look at Picasa, Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Talk, and even Google Translate.

Enjoy,
- John

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