Six Killer Apps for Business: From Sunrise to Slack, Everything Your Business Needs to Run Smoothly
Such tools can help with all sorts of tasks, from team communication and note-taking to project management. Many powerful tools are cross-platform, and the ones we look at here have all been tested in live business environments. Here’s a selection of six great apps for business, along with the key advice you need to get the best out of them.
When it comes to working as a team, email is a poor way to communicate. It’s time-consuming, yet easy to overlook; important information is split across disparate threads; and when multiple revisions of documents are sent around as attachments, the scope for confusion is horrific.
Slack takes a different approach: it’s a smartly designed instant-messaging app for grownups. Individual projects or groups can be divided into separate channels (each denoted with a Twitter-like hashtag) – so you might have one channel for the #Marketing team, for instance, and another for the #WinterMarketingCampaign. You can divide and subdivide team members as necessary so that every one relevant is kept in the loop, while those who needn’t be involved in a conversation aren’t disturbed.
All of the conversations in each channel flows as a single thread; there are no separate threads for different topics. For people used to creating different conversations with unique subject lines in an email, this can be discombobulating at first, but you soon get used to having everything in one place. There’s a slick search facility, which is very fast, highlights the search terms in results, and generally makes it a breeze to jump back and pick up an older conversation thread whenever you like.
You can also share documents with other channel members, and comments made about those documents are retained alongside the documents themselves, so there’s no need to dredge through your inbox to collect together all the responses to a particular draft.
Slack works on every major platform and you can pick up and join conversations on whichever device you have to hand. It’s free to use, but if you want a searchable archive past 10,000 messages, you’ll need to upgrade to one of the paid-for plans, which start from $7 per month for small and medium-sized businesses per month. It’s a smart business model because, after a few weeks of using Slack, we don’t think many people will want to go back to the 562 unread messages in their inbox.
Evernote was the note-taking app of choice for professionals before the iPad was a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye. Today, it’s grown into a family of tools that integrate seamlessly under the main Evernote app.
Let’s start with Penultimate, a digital handwriting app for the iPad. Partnered with a Jot Script Evernote Edition stylus, it’s the first app to persuade us that writing cursive onto a tablet screen might just work. This is largely thanks to the Zoom box, which hones in on a small part of the screen and moves the page beneath you as you write, allowing you to write in the way you would with a real pen and paper. Even with our sloppy journalists’ handwriting, the search facility does a remarkably good job of transcribing, and your Penultimate scrawlings are saved back to Evernote without fuss.
Then there’s the Scannable app for iOS, which lets you capture printed or handwritten documents, such as expenses receipts or Post-it notes, and save them to your Evernote folders (or as Calendar appointments if the document details a date). Scan a business card – either using Scannable or the mobile Evernote apps – and not only is the information instantly digitized for storing in your contacts, but you’re also prompted to make an instant connection on LinkedIn, which is an effortless way of building business relationships.
Finally, the cross-platform Skitch app has one killer feature: it lets you quickly annotate Google Maps. So if you need to give a client or colleague clear instructions on how to get to a meeting venue, or want to mark up a “Find Us Here” map to be embedded on the company website, it’s perfect for the job.
Sunrise is a powerful calendar manager that works on every major platform other than Windows Phone – which is probably why Microsoft recently paid $100 million to acquire its publisher. Hopefully, this doesn’t mean development on other platforms will be scaled back, because, in the overcrowded field of calendar apps, Sunrise is the best.
That’s partly because it brings together such a wide array of professional and personal calendar systems: Exchange, Google, and iCloud events are covered, as are reminders from other apps including Evernote, GitHub, and LinkedIn. Sunrise folds everything together into a single schedule view that shows you what’s on the agenda for the next few days, along with a weather forecast.
The execution is full of delightful touches, such as the way calendar events are automatically assigned icons based on their descriptions. Appointments containing the word “interview”, for example, get little speech bubbles, while “birthday” gets a balloon. Create a new appointment and (on Android and iOS) you can dial in the time on a virtual clock face – a faster and more intuitive interface than conventional dropdown menus.
Android users can also install a Sunrise widget on their home screen, for an at-a-glance rundown of upcoming appointments and the option to quickly add them without first having to open the app. Desktop users, meanwhile, can use Sunrise via a Google Chrome app, which lets you run the calendar in a standalone window. Here, you have to double-click on a blank space in the relevant day to create a new appointment, which isn’t immediately obvious – but this is possibly the only usability faux pas that Sunrise makes on any platform.
Even shorthand experts will admit that notes taken in meetings are never a true representation of what was said. Cogi lets you capture those key moments of meetings, speeches or presentations without having to wade through a recording of the full session.
Using Cogi is as simple as activating it at the start of the meeting; this sets Cogi listening to what’s being said, but recording starts only when you hit the Highlight button. The clever part is that – since you often don’t know in advance when someone’s about to say something that’s worthy of note – Cogi maintains an audio buffer. So when you tap Highlight, the audio capture begins with the preceding 15 seconds of audio. (If you prefer, you can set the pre-capture buffer to 5, 15, 30, or 45 seconds.)
When the interesting bit is over, simply tap again to stop recording. There’s no limit on the duration of highlights – it can be a five-second sound bite or a 30-minute monologue. The idea is to record only the crucial bits so you can quickly review the highlights at a later date.
All of the highlights from one meeting are grouped together in a single session, and each clip can be named for later reference. It’s also possible to add text notes and photos to a session. Sessions can also be tagged – the app allows you to search your contacts for the names of speakers to tag, as well as providing default tags such as #FollowUp, #Important or #Reminder. Tags and notes can be searched to make it easier to locate old recordings at a later date.
The app is free, although there’s a subscription service allowing you to pay for a transcription of your notes. Since the whole point of the app is to record only the highlights of a meeting or a presentation, however, it shouldn’t be too painful to do the transcribing yours
Available on: iPad
Similar to Cogi, Minutes is designed to ensure that those key meeting moments aren’t forgotten once you leave the boardroom. It makes the process of taking minutes as painless as possible – as long as you can bear tapping them into an iPad – handling everything from recording action points to sending the finished minutes to attendees.
You start by entering the description of your meeting – or if the meeting is already stored in your Calendar, Minutes can extract the title from there. You then add attendees from your iPad’s Contacts. If you don’t have email details stored for a particular attendee, their name will be highlighted in orange, and you can tap on them to add an address.
The Minutes form also includes a “preparation space”, where you can type any notes that will remain private to you (perhaps arrangements for forthcoming meetings). Then there’s a form where you note down the minutes as you normally would. The layout is clear, although we’d like to see more formatting options, such as the ability to underline or embolden headings, or to use bullet points and numbered lists.
More usefully, alongside general notes, it’s also possible to create action points. The form lets you enter an action point, assign a person responsible from the list of attendees, and set a deadline.
When the meeting is complete, and all the notes and action points have been taken, you can press a single button to send the minutes to all the attendees, with the action points and deadlines included. Then, at the next meeting, you can call up the minutes from the previous meeting (rotate the iPad into landscape mode to access notes from previous meetings) and tick off each action point, making it easy to ensure that everything has been done. Minutes keeps things clear, concise, and accountable.
If you work on several projects at once and use Windows, take a look at Eclipse Manager. It helps you keep track of all the individual tasks that need to be completed for each project, identifying which requires your immediate attention and which can be kicked into the long grass.The Eclipse Manager UI is broken down into Folders, Projects, and Tasks. Folders organize projects of a similar type (say “app development”), while Projects (such as “contact management app”) comprise a list of Tasks (“wireframe the homepage”) that need to be completed. Each project can be cost-tracked, with three charging options: incremental (with sums assigned to each task), on completion or hourly. If you’re charging by the hour, you can use the app to track when you’re starting and stopping work on a particular task, helping you keep on top of the billing.
Individual tasks, meanwhile, can be assigned a priority and specific deadlines and sorted into different columns within projects. You might create columns for “to do” and “completed tasks”, or create subcategories of tasks within a project. Simply right-click in an empty space in a Project to bring up the option to create columns.
Eclipse isn’t the most sophisticated task manager out there. There’s no option to create charts or dependencies – you can’t specify that tasks A and B must be done before task C can be started – and you can’t set an overall deadline for your project.
Yet that very simplicity is what makes Eclipse so appealing: you can pick up the software and get started in seconds. Just log your Projects and Tasks, review what needs doing first in the TimeLine view, and get on with the stuff that earns them money. The Live Tile will remind you of your to-do list if you become distracted.