No matter your profession; storing, sharing, backing up and collaborating on documents are tasks you will need to adapt to a location independent lifestyle. Taking your job or business on the road requires that you simplify many processes you previously took for granted. You also have to worry about security, both in terms of physical access and keeping backups in case of emergency.
In recent years, tools for creating and storing documents have moved to the cloud. That’s a fancy way of saying that your documents can now be written, saved and backed up online. You can also share these documents with others, and collaborate in real-time. These features have many potential benefits for remote workers, as well as a few drawbacks.
This article describes my experience using several of these tools, and explains the pros and cons of using online document management tools and traditional laptop/desktop-based programs while you travel.
Online vs Offline
As a digital nomad, moving your documents online is a double-edged blade. On one hand, online storage offers collaboration and sharing capabilities that can be very difficult to manage if you are thousands of miles and several time zones away. On the other hand, if your files are stored online, you can’t touch them without access to the internet.
The bottom line is that unless have frequent internet access and need your documents to be shared with others at all times, you shouldn’t rely completely on cloud-based document management tools.
Luckily, there’s a middle ground. All of the tools described below allow you to import and export documents in formats that will work with traditional installed programs, like Microsoft Office. It is simple (but not always painless) to work on your laptop without internet access and upload files once you regain connectivity. Even better, some online programs offer features that allow you to use their online tools in an “offline mode”. Meaning you can type away without internet, and once you plug back in, your files automatically synchronize with the original documents online.
Choose the Tools that Work for You
There’s no perfect solution, and since your needs will certainly be different than mine, the best suggestion I can offer is to practice. Figure out what you need in terms of sharing, storing, backing up and collaborating with team members while you work remotely, and pick the tools that work the best for you.
In my experience you won’t be able to find one magic program that does it all, yet. It’s best to focus on what is most important, build from there, and add new tools as your needs change. It takes time to learn new software, and you don’t want to change how you work or do business too drastically as you start life as a digital nomad.
Online Word Processing Tools
I’ve been using Google Docs for several years. All of the articles posted on this site were first written and revised in Google Docs - I’m using it right now to type this.
Google Docs is free, and it allows you to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, forms and drawings. All of which are stored online, saved automatically and are incredibly easy to share. Real-time online collaboration is a relatively new feature, allowing you to work alongside others, and immediately see what they type.
Importing documents is easy. You can choose to have them automatically converted to the format used by Google Docs to enable the normal features, or leave the documents in their original format to be shared with others or simply backed up in case of emergency. The import and conversion process has improved quite a bit the past year. Uploading a Microsoft Word or Excel document rarely requires a lot of extra tinkering to fix problems with the conversion process.
As of May 2011, Google Docs no longer supports offline access. Google has announced they will be adding a new feature using the latest technology to create a more seamless offline experience, but have not given a date for this release.
Zoho is the largest competitor to Google Docs. In fact, it is a much more complete package, offering over 20 different applications compared to Google’s six. Wikis, virtual meetings, invoicing, planning, creating reports, project management...the list goes on. Zoho does a much better job of targeting businesses and creating an office suite that may fit the needs of professionals.
All of Zoho’s apps have free versions, but many are very limited without paying a monthly service fee. The most commonly used apps for word processing, presentations and spreadsheets are free for personal use. Project management apps, virtual meetings, reporting, invoicing and other business-centric apps carry a monthly fee that vary depending on the number of collaborators, documents and/or storage space required. See Zoho's pricing page for more information.
Zoho also supports an offline mode, using a browser plugin called Google Gears. This allows you to create a document using Writer, save it to your laptop, work on it offline, and synchronize everything once you’re back online.
Etherpad is the world’s first web-based collaborative real-time text editor. To put that simply, it’s the web site where you could create a document, share it with others, and see the changes they make immediately. Etherpad was purchased by Google a couple years ago, and made open source. The EtherPad Foundation is currently in charge of maintaining the source code and managing new features.
EtherPad has a simplistic interface, and is the preferred online text editor for collaborative coding in several popular programming languages. For the tech-savvy, you can download EtherPad and run it on your machine, giving others access to the documents you create and store. For the rest of us there are many public websites that host EtherPad, that you can find here.