Good Google Drive alternatives for collaborating on documents, notes, presentations, and more

Back in the day, Google Drive was early to market with a halfway decent, browser-based collaborative document editor. Relatively bare-bones and free, it caught on quickly with a portion of the market.

These days, Google Drive is far from the only game in town. Subjectively, it also isn’t very good anymore, and bugs often stick around for months or years. Remember the “randomly indent parts of paragraphs for nearly two years, even in Chrome” bug? The iOS apps have also steadily deteriorated.

Thankfully, there is a strong selection of alternatives for different audiences. Whether you need a full-featured professional suite or just a scratchpad to jot notes with others, give these a look.

Quip

Quip is perhaps the closest to Google Drive in terms of browser-based simplicity and mobile apps. It has a unique, minimal interface for basic editing. But for simple, collaborative documents, adding notes, and discussion about the document (instead of getting lost in email), Quip is a great choice.Bonus: Quip has partial support for Markdown. If you paste it in, Quip leaves it alone. But if you use Markdown syntax while you write, Quip will turn it into rich text. If you’d rather keep it as markdown, just press Delete once after the auto-conversion.

Office

You heard me. Microsoft Office has improved significantly over the past few years, especially on iOS and macOS. I can’t speak to the depth of its feature set, but it feels more organized, approachable, and usable than ever.

The native apps and web apps also have collaboration now. It doesn’t have a free version like Google, but Microsoft also isn’t mining your documents for advertisers. Paid Office 365 plans start at $5, which include the web apps and hosted domain Exchange email. Compared to Google Drive, the entry level Office plan gives you far better web apps, broader industry file compatibility, collaboration, and more standard, app-friendly domain email for the same price.

Jessi and I share a family Office subscription, which gives both of us access to the native apps on iPad and Mac. I’ve use the email for Chartier.land and my business Bit & Pen domains for about a year now, and I’m happy.

iWork

Considering this crowd, I probably don’t have to say much about iWork. It’s a solid suite for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, and Apple recently added collaboration on both the web and native apps. I think it’s also free when you buy a new Apple device now, so financially it’s a win.

Apple Notes

If you just need a simple place to share things that are more note-like than full-on documents, and everyone you want to share with is on an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, Apple Notes is a good choice.

It does basic formatting like headings, lists, bold, and italics. It handles photos and you can add rich media links from Safari. I’ve heard from people who use Apple notes to share family todo lists, idea scratch pads, and even collaborate on blog posts. It’s pretty flexible.

Dropbox Paper

Dropbox recently launched its own basic document collaboration tool. I can’t speak to it much since most of my work is in Quip, Google Drive for some clients, or Ulysses, but I‘ em heard from people who are happy with it.

Zoho

Zoho has its own growing collection of web apps and services that I would put somewhere between Google Apps and Salesforce. At the core, though, are apps for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, sites, wikis, and much more.

You can sign up and use some of the apps for free, and pricing varies based on the collection of apps you want.

Honorable Mention – Texpad

Texpad is another online collaborative document system with native apps. It’s built around LaTeX, a “document preparation” system popular in academia, hence the honorable mention. Its audience is niche, but enough people responded to my original question on Twitter that I wanted to include it.

Any others?

This list is mostly stuff I know about and have used at least a few times. Did I miss any good ones? I’m happy to expand this list, so let me know on Tumblr @chartier, Twitter @chartier, or here.

The case for editing tweets

Twitter is a publishing platform. Run and used by human beings.

Most publishing platforms allows us to make things and then post those things to the internet.

Tumblr. WordPress. Instagram. Blogger. Facebook. Drupal. Medium. LinkedIn. Your company’s custom CMS. Hell, even Path. Pinterest. Twitter. Publishing platforms. Run and used by human beings.

Virtually every publishing platform recognizes that we’re human beings. That’s why they allow us to edit the things we publish. Tumblr. WordPress. Instagram. Blogger. Facebook. Drupal. Medium. LinkedIn. Your company’s custom CMS. Hell, even Path. Pinterest. Publishing platforms. Run, used, and editable by human beings.

Per the human condition, sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we need to update people on a topic or event they’re following. Sometimes we need to add more information for clarity. Sometimes we say something very, very stupid and need to make amends. There are zillions more reasons like this. Because we’re human beings.

Twitter is not unique among its peers.

The way people use Twitter to publish things they say or create is not unique among its peers.

The ways and reasons people quote or otherwise use Twitter content outside of Twitter are not unique among its peers.

Virtually every other publishing platform recognizes that we’re human beings, and that we have zillions of reasons to need and want to edit the things we publish.

The only thing unique about Twitter is that its decision makers don’t get it.

Addendum

Know something that is unique about one of the many platforms that recognizes we need to edit the things we publish? As far as I can tell, Facebook is the only that offers any kind of ‘paper trail.’

When someone edits a Facebook post or comment, an “Edited” link appears on it somewhere, usually near the timestamp. Tap it, and you’ll see a list of not just the current and original versions, but any and all iterations in between.

That’s frigging smart. All publishing platforms should do that. Especially Twitter.

Dropmark is my new service for bookmarks and collecting, sharing neat stuff

Like many nerds, I started using Pinboard for a bookmarking service quite a while ago. Being an app person, I’ve shuffled through a handful of iOS and Mac apps as my actual interface for it. I’ve also bounced between Droplr and CloudApp for sharing files from time to time. But a few months ago I found Dropmark and its still-in-beta but excellent iOS app, and it’s become my replacement for all of this.

Pinboard is a fine enough service, but I have two big complaints about it. First, I find its design lacking and difficult to navigate and use. While apps are a decent enough workaround most (but not all) of the time, my second and more important complaint is that Pinboard refuses to support multi-word tags. They’re really important to the way I think and work.

Plus, I’m able to use multi-word tags on nearly every other service that matters to me—Tumblr, WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace (for client work), Pocket, Evernote, the list goes on. If you ask me, multi-word tags are basically synonymous with internet content, and have been for nearly two decades.

Dropmark calls itself “a smart way to organize all your links, files, and notes into visual collections” (collections = folders). I use it for two main purposes: bookmarks and sharing files or collections. For example, my main bookmarks are private (and I actually edited out a couple private collections in my post screenshot for unannounced projects), but here are my public collections of:

I’ve created a couple Dropmark collections of example links and videos to share with clients for new projects. It went pretty well. I also have a “Scratch” collection for when I need to quickly share a file with someone when email or MailDrop aren’t a good fit.

Dropmark has a great browser extension and Mac menubar app. For the past few months, it’s also been beta test a really good iPhone and iPad app that has a strong app extension. Even though it’s only in beta, the iOS app was really what got me to buy in, being a mostly-mobile person these days.

Dropmark has a few free and paid plans. Theres a trial for testing out all the features, a free plan if you don’t need much, then paid plans for individuals and teams. I’m on the Individual Pro plan at around $50/year, which unlocks features like:

  • tags
  • unlimited collections
  • private collaboration (you can add people to a collection so they can add things with you)
  • a custom domain (you can see all my public collections at share.chartier.land)
  • quite a bit more

I’ve been pretty happy with Dropmark and now consider myself to be switched over full-time. I still use similar services like Evernote and Pinterest for specific purposes, but I like Dropmark for what I need it to do. I also like that it’s a paid service, and even its free options seems refreshingly reasonable to me. You get a free trial of all its features, but the ongoing free plan restricts a good amount of stuff. If you need more, you can pay to support the service. Seems fair.

A high-level comparison of Squarespace and Weebly

Squarespace and Weebly are both “drag and drop” website services built for regular folks. They’re similar in a number of ways, but I recently gave Weebly a shot for my content and consulting company‘s site, and I’m glad I did. I won’t get into every little difference, but here is a brief comparison of what I feel are the notable talking points.

Mobility

The largest reason I decided to give Weebly a shot is its robust app for iPhone and iPad. I use my Mac much less these days, but Squarespace’s apps have been way too limited for far too long, restricted largely to creating basic blog posts and tracking your stats. Unfortunately, I have it on good authority that the company isn’t interested in bringing much more of its service to mobile.

On the other hand, Weebly’s app is largely true to the service. You can create, edit, and rearrange pages, create and edit blog posts, add multi-image galleries anywhere you want, and use a healthy portion of the other content blocks available in the full web version. In fact, you can create a brand new site on your iPhone, pick a theme, and get to work.

Extensibility

If you want an easy way to move beyond the core set of features and content blocks that Weebly (and Squarespace) offers, the App Center is an impressive advantage. It offers myriad add-ons for things like an appointment scheduling system, on-site chat services, membership-based content, alternative ecommerce, social media showcases, form tools… you get the idea.

These add-on apps range from free, to freemium, to paid, and most of the ones I’ve looked at offer some kind of trial period. I should note that I haven’t used any yet, but judging from the 1-2 dozen apps Weebly seems to add on a monthly basis, I’ll venture a guess that it’s a healthy ecosystem.

Dynamic content

Squarespace wins here with some great options for displaying your content in different ways across multiple pages. For example, let’s say you have a blog with some great posts. You can add a block to your site’s homepage that shows off just your posts categorized as Featured, including thumbnails of their featured images. Same goes for galleries—you can create a Squarespace gallery, then drop it into a block on multiple pages and even change how it looks on each one.

Weebly only offers these options if you run a store. You can pick certain products to display on other pages, but you can’t do this for blog posts, galleries, or any other type of content. I imagine Weebly is working on expanding these features, but that is just my personal speculation.

Developer-ability

This is another strength for Squarespace. If you want to pull a Neo and start flexing the actual code behind your site, Squarespace’s Developer Mode is a great option. Weebly’s App Center certainly offers a great array of add-on features and customizability, but your Weebly site’s code is off limits.

Export and import

One of Weebly’s biggest weaknesses, and my primary complaint, is that it has no way to import pages and blog posts from an existing site. No, not even from WordPress, which reportedly powers 25 percent of the internet. I think this is a significant oversight by the company, and a major deal-breaker for quite a few potential customers.

I’ve talked to support about it and they are certainly aware of this drawback. But the company has no comment on when they’ll fix the problem.

Memberships

Weebly’s higher-tiered plans (Pro at $9 and Business at $25) allow you to offer site memberships. This typically means people can pay you some kind of regular fee in order to access paywalled content. It’s one of the most sought-after features these days for niche sites and communities, and something that is often complex or more expensive with other platforms.

Newsletters

Weebly has its own newsletter system, accessible to Business plans, which can be powerful in a handful of ways.

For stores owners, you can easily pull products into each issue without having to bounce between services or mess with code. For sites that allow readers to subscribe, whether paid or just free, it makes building, publishing, and managing your subscribers and newsletter much easier. As of this writing, you probably have to use a Mac or PC to run your newsletter, though you might be able to do some or all of it in Mobile Safari (I don’t run a newsletter yet). I’ll speculate again that the newsletter feature could also come to the mobile app sometime down the road.

Of course, like Squarespace, you can always plug a signup widget into your site for whichever newsletter service you prefer. But if you want a simple way to create a membership-based site and run a newsletter, Weebly’s features could be appealing.

Summary

Weebly and Squarespace each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Weebly’s strong iOS app and broad, easy extensibility make it a better choice for my needs and, increasingly, the clients who approach me for help with revamping their site or building a simple online store or other presence.

I hope this comparison helps those who are deciding between these two services. If you have any more questions about either, hit me up on Tumblr or Twitter and I’ll try to answer them.

Slack _can_ be hard, but a little planning can do wonders

There’s a thread going around that Slack is making work worse or less efficient. But the tool is often not the problem, and I believe that’s the case with Slack.

Without a little conscious organization, Slack can turn into a large, at times complicated tool. This simply means it needs a clear purpose with rules, or at least guidelines, in order to effectively solve an organization’s particular problem.

Maybe you can just toss everyone in and hope for the best. But you can dramatically improve your chances by creating or adopting a style guide similar to the one Slack is beginning to build for all of us.

A key portion to think about, which I believe is coming in a future post on Slack’s (Medium-powered) blog, is defining a purpose for each part of your Slack account and the integrations you add. How many channels do you actually need? What is the point of each channel, and should everyone be allowed to create them? What kind of do-not-disturb hours (one of my favorite features) can you set for a good work-life balance? Should a channel be open to your whole org or, if it’s for a specific team, would it be better for that team to have privacy and focus?

Slack can be much more than a centralized IRC or list of chat rooms, and I highly recommend you think of it as such, otherwise it very well may fail to be the great replacement for intra-org email that it can be. Here’s a use case to consider: if you set up a channel for a company task or department (CS, marketing, dev, whatever), you can take advantage of Slack’s ability to collect files shared in that channel and star messages for posterity. Share links in that channel to Quip or Drive of key docs for department processes, style guides, and other resources, then star them all. Now you have most, possibly all the onboarding materials you need for you next recruit in one easy place where they can ask questions and get feedback from other team members and leaders. When you combine this deliberate approach with its large and growing list of integrations, Slack can become incredibly powerful and enabling—as long as you spend a little time thinking critically about these options and which can actually work for you.

If you’ve found yourself curious about or using Slack but stumbling over whether it’s a help or hindrance, I highly recommend following Slack’s blog for the rest of the series.

The case for newsreaders, but not in their current form

Over the past few years, a number people have talked about shifting many of their information consumption from newsreaders and various websites, or perhaps nothing at all, to social media. “My social circles keep me informed,” goes some thinking and, for a short time, I tried this route. But the more I explored, the more I found it limiting in a number of ways. I realized it might be time to revisit the power and flexibility of newsreaders.

Noise

The problem with social that has troubled me the longest is the noise. But even when I’ve gone on follow purges, created lists, and tuned my feeds in other ways, social is, well, social. It’s where people and now even #brands go to hang out, crack jokes, fire off one-liners, and increasingly get into spats, in addition to sharing actual, valuable information.

I think the lowered barrier to entry has become both the blessing and curse of social. It’s easier than ever to share an idea online, which gives more people a voice they’ve never had. But all this chatter and branding and fighting make it too difficult for me to get to the actual news and information I want.

I’m not painting social as a bad thing; it can even be fun at times. But when I want to sit down and read or learn, it’s just… inefficient.

Trends and discovery

Twitter and Facebook made efforts to cut through or curate the noise with ‘trends’ features, but they’re fairly rudimentary. They focus largely on mass media events and empty calorie scandals, and largely aren’t very customizable. I just don’t get much out of them.

Choice

For the most part, Twitter and Facebook don’t offer much variety in their format and tools. If you want to view news in a particular way, or use certain tools to fit information into your workflow, you’re largely out of luck.

Third-party apps built on my social graph are sometimes an option, but my choices and feeds I follow still lead back to their respective motherships. That means I’m mixing news and information brands in with my friends and I’m right back at the noise problem.

The case

I never entirely got rid of my newsreading apps (namely Newsify and Feedly). I deliberately brought them back into my routine about six months ago and rediscovered my appreciation for the control and flexibility they offer.

Newsreaders, at their core, are meant to be an inbox for all the news and information we deem important to us. We certainly don’t need to consume every morsel they catch (besides, it’s impossible), but the point is to have a choice in the tools to capture, skim, read, and act on this information.

Maybe you want condensed headlines you can skim and cherry pick, or maybe you want a full-article magazine to flip through. News feeds can be added to myriad apps and manipulated in a world of ways to suit your needs and workflow.

Plus, it isn’t much harder to publish information and ideas to most news platforms versus social media. But that small amount of extra effort means most people and publications leave the current event one-liners, lunch photography, and quips about our hidden humanity for social media, and use their site’s feed to get straight to the real signal we’re after.

I’m the skimmer type. I like adding a lot of feeds, lightly organizing them into folders based on topic, and skimming for what I want to read. If it sounds like not much has changed since the days of Google Reader or even before, well, it’s true.

This system still works. In fact, in a time of overwhelming noise and few new options to cut through it, I would argue newsreaders are more valuable than ever, especially since Google Reader’s demise opened the doors for innovation to return. But as I wrote previously, there is so much more newsreaders could do to add significant value and empower both publishers and readers.

The open doors

I won’t rehash that entire article and my propositions, but much of it still remains up for grabs. Newsreaders have a number of fascinating opportunities, ranging from building a catalog of our highlights and read stories, to building Fever-like smart systems that can surface the events and topics that are trending among the news sources we care about. Finally, one of the largest opportunities is the ‘Netflix for news’ option that could benefit everyone: readers could get a single, convenient point of subscribing to and supporting the publications they care about, and publishers could gain an easy new source of regular revenue.

Still, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed but less informed on social, give a newsreader a try. I recommend Feedly and Flipboard if you want a first-party app and service. If you’re new to newsreaders, they both have simple signup processes and good discovery options to get you started. I use Newsify to read and manage my Feedly subscription, though Reeder is a great third-party app too.

Like email, I feel it’s good to have some kind of plan or routine for how often you interact with and consume news. I generally check mine once or twice a day, though less frequently on weekends and busy days. However you roll, I hope you get some good value out of your newsreader.

"Activist Engineering"

Matthew Bischoff:

We’re better than this. As software engineers and designers, we’re in the room when decisions are shaped, and the only ones who have the power to actually execute them. It’s our responsibility not to forsake the people who trust the apps we make with our silence. To stand up and refuse to implement unethical systems and dark patterns. And even more, to educate stakeholders on the real human costs of their business decisions: the time, attention, money, and trust of their customers.

Facebook Instant Articles and the fight over how many ads per words you should see

The first 20 publishers taking part in Facebook’s Instant Articles program are struggling to make as much revenue from each article. Facebook imposes a number of App-Store-like rules on these articles, but among them:

That’s because of the strict guidelines Facebook has laid down on the type and volume of ads publishers are allowed to sell. For example, the guidelines state that just one “large banner” ad sized 320 x 250 pixels may be included for every 500 words of content. On their own mobile properties, publishers such as The Washington Post would typically include three or perhaps four of those ads alongside a 500-word article.

Think about that: large publishers want to show up to three to four ads per 500 words. And they wonder why ad blockers are a thing. 

Plus, with the rise of ad blocking, I wonder whether Instant Articles will gain any traction. Later in the article, Facebook states it is experimenting with changing or loosening some of these restrictions, including the ads per article rule.

I haven’t sought out Instant Articles, although, despite Liking many of the participating publishers, I also haven’t seen one since the launch. But once readers who are angry about the current state of abusive, invansive web advertising pick up on this, will they keep reading in Facebook? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they bounce out to their browser with an ad blocker, or perhaps worse, just skip these publishers entirely.

Comcast’s mobile site can check your internet connection, text you when it’s back up

Internet was out at our house this morning, so I decided to give Comcast’s mobile site on iPhone. Once you sign in (assuming you have already set up credentials), it can check your specific connection to see whether it’s actually down. If it is, Comcast can text you when it’s back up. 

Sunrise Calendar adds handy little icons to events based on keywords

In addition to displaying colors for different calendars, Sunrise Calendar also adds a tiny icon to help you identify events more quickly. There is a fork and spoon for food-related events, an airplane for flights, and over 30 more.

Sunrise does this by watching for keywords in event title, and it has a list of all icons and keywords. This probably isn’t a major, must-have feature, but it is a nice detail that improves event recognition and preparation.