Harnessing the Power of the Internet’s Collaboration Tools

The number of internet users in Malawi has grown tremendously over the past few years especially those using broadband internet services. Having worked for two of the major internet service providers in the country, I noticed that many users main interests lay simply in sending & receiving mail and browsing the net. Yet the internet provides so many other tools for use especially those that make collaboration between peoples and offices in different places all over the world so much easier. In short, these 24/7 wireless connections are grossly underutilised unless of course there are a number of young lads downloading pirated software, music and videos. I will attempt to outline some of these tools most relevant to Malawi internet users.

Skype is a peer-to-peer Voice over IP (VoIP) network that allows users to make free voice and video conferencing calls over the internet. This means you can make free calls to other users, wherever they are in the world, but only to those who have also downloaded and installed the Skype software and have an earphone and microphone (headset) just like you. This means you can keep in constant touch, for free, with those friends in the diaspora or business contacts who will most likely have Skype installed on their pc’s. You can however make calls to traditional numbers and cell phones for a fee using SkypeOut. Quality of service is not guaranteed so expect dropouts and voice delays.

Another great tool is Google Docs & Spreadsheets, a Web-based word processor and spreadsheet application offered by Google. It allows users to upload or create documents and spreadsheets while inviting others to share or edit the documents together in real-time.

Documents can be uploaded or emailed in formats such as plain text or Word and later be exported as HTML, Word or PDF files. Spreadsheets can be uploaded or emailed in CSV, Excel, and OpenDocument formats and later be exported as HTML and PDF in addition to other formats. Docs & Spreadsheets include most word processing and spreadsheet features although other features lack. In addition to exporting your documents to your desktop in the formats above, you can send them by email, publish them online to the world or even post them to your blog. By being able to share the document amongst multiple users at the same time makes Google Docs & Spreadsheets a great collaboration tool.

Another product offered by Google is Google Calendar, a contact- and time-management web application. It allows users to synchronize their Gmail (Google’s web e-mail service) contacts with a web-based calendar. The interface of Google Calendar is similar to desktop calendar applications such as Microsoft Outlook. The interface enables users to view, add and even drag-and-drop events from one date to another without reloading the page. It sports a variety of view modes, such as the weekly, monthly and agenda views. Users can set the number of days to show in their custom view mode. All events in a Google Calendar can be commented on by its users.

Events are stored online, so in the case of a user being away from his computer, he can still view the information. The application can import Microsoft Outlook calendar files (.cvs) although at this stage only when the fields are all in U.S. format. Multiple calendars can be added and shared, allowing various levels of permissions for the users. This enables collaboration and sharing of schedules between groups or families. Being integrated with Gmail means that when an e-mail that contains trigger words (such as “meeting”, or dates and times) arrives, an “add to calendar” button is automatically displayed alongside it.

Another tool that can be used by Malawian journalists and columnists to get across to those in the diaspora and invite immediate comments is a Blog. This is a user-generated website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order. They can focus on a particular subject such as sports, politics and local news or can simply be a personal online diary. The ability for readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Some blogs are specialist and focus on photographs (photoblog), videos (vlog), or audio (podcasting) and are part of a wider network of social media. Blogs are free to use and the most common are Blogger, Blogit, LiveJournal and WordPress amongst plenty others.

Another tool widely used in Malawi is Instant messaging. It is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text. Instant messaging requires the use of a client program, such as Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, Skype or Google Talk, that hooks up an instant messaging service and differs from e-mail in that conversations are then able to happen in real time.

Are you one of those people who flood friends mail boxes every Monday morning with pictures of weddings, engagements and other events that took place over the past weekend? Photo sharing is the publishing or transfer of a user’s digital photos online, thus enabling the user to share them with others (whether publicly or privately). This functionality is provided through websites that facilitate the upload and display of images. Sites that offer free photo sharing are Flickr, Fotki, Ringo, Webshots and MyPhotoAlbum amongst many others.