Comparing Collaborative Web Services

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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