Comparing Collaborative Web Services

WebOffice supplies the highest level of of detail in task assignment.
WebOffice supplies the highest level of of detail in task assignment.
Buying the vast feature set of a collaboration server like Microsoft Office Sharepoint would be overkill for many businesses. That's why Sharepoint has lots of competition from Web-based services that offer more-focused subsets of collaboration tools for fewer dollars, and in some cases for free. We looked at four alternatives to Microsoft's monolithic server: Central Desktop, Ninian Solutions' Huddle, 37Signals' Basecamp, and WebEx's WebOffice. All four provide basic document management or sharing capabilities, user management and communications, and project management tools. A couple even offer features--such as app sharing and chat--that are well suited to geographically dispersed work groups.

What's Up, Docs?

Huddle provides the most thorough document management.
Huddle provides the most thorough document management.
You don't need a specialized service if you just want to share files with others on the Web; various services, including Google Docs, give lots of upload space and the ability to share uploaded files with fellow users of your choice. But Google et al. don't offer document management, in which the service tracks versions of documents and uses a check-in/check-out system to protect master documents.

Huddle (even the free version) has the most thorough controls for document management. Huddle users can check out and download documents for editing or proofreading, upload and check them back in when finished, and then assign document review and approval duties to other team members. In contrast, the free, limited version of Basecamp won't permit file uploads; paid versions offer file storage with basic version tracking but no check-in/check-out capability. Central Desktop falls in the middle, allowing you to set a document's status manually as Draft, Pending Approval, Approved, Final, or Cancelled. WebOffice, which starts at $60 a month for five users, doesn't track changes in uploaded documents at all. But it does let you configure Windows Explorer to upload and download files to and from the WebOffice documents folder.

In all but WebOffice, users can create and collaborate on simple text documents directly in the service's interface--a nice way for users to author drafts of text collectively for later publication. Unfortunately, though all three text-edit utilities worked fine, each suffered from a common collaboration flaw: Attempts to edit a document that another user was editing simultaneously generally resulted in the loss of the edits of one or both users, with little warning in advance from the Web site. We don't understand why the three services don't simply prevent users from editing already-open documents.

Task Masters

Businesses do not live by documents alone. Shepherding colleagues through a project may involve coordinating and completing numerous subsidiary tasks. All four of the services we tested have tools for creating tasks and assigning them to group members, and all but Huddle let you tie tasks to a larger goal or milestone. WebOffice provides the most fine-grained task control data, including due date, time of day due, task category, priority level, person assigned the task, and notification reminder.

Basecamp has fewer task options, but it does let you assign tasks remotely via e-mail, even from your BlackBerry.

Staying in Touch

Communication is the key to collaboration. Both Basecamp and Central Desktop support basic threaded-discussion forums for project-related bantering. You can even link Basecamp to 37Signals' Campfire group chat service; WebOffice similarly dovetails with WebEx's separate WebEx Mail service. But none of the four systems incorporates a basic instant messaging application to streamline real-time collaboration.

Web-hosted collaboration removes a slew of document attachments from your e-mail. To keep you abreast of the goings-on in your virtual office, however, each service defaults to notifying you via e-mail about significant activity, such as new task assignments, due dates, and uploaded documents. Basecamp, Central Desktop, and Huddle blessedly give you the option of receiving those notifications via an RSS feed, lightening the load on your inbox.

Virtual-office denizens looking for the ultimate collaboration experience may want to opt for one more premium add-on service. Both Central Desktop and WebOffice let you (at extra cost) create online meetings in which each participant can view others' applications and multiple people can browse the Web together. Central Desktop's add-on starts at $35 per month, while WebOffice's starts at $50 per seat per month.

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