Collaborate Using Online Tools

As journalists go, I am usually ridiculously organized (I procrastinate by rearranging my desk or home office). Lately, though, the sheer number of projects I'm handling--along with messages and appointments coming from three different e-mail accounts--has threatened to overwhelm me.

Compound this deluge by the fact that my role at a high-tech consulting company means I don't exactly work in a vacuum. Even though I'm miles away from most of my colleagues or clients, I need a way to share pertinent documents, presentations, and proposals with other people. Even more important, I need to track my due dates, and where my extended team is working (or playing) at any given moment.

Do these problems sound familiar?

The good news is, there's a whole new class of services aimed at small businesses that need to better support team collaboration and project management functions. Search the Internet for "online collaboration," and you'll see dozens of results returned. I've honed those choices to a handful of services--Basecamp, Central Desktop, Google Sites, HyperOffice, Sosius, Twiddla, and Vyew. These services have a true small-business bent and aren't simply the online editions of existing enterprise software packages. (PC World has reviewed various types of collaboration services and packages.)

When it comes to choosing which service to use, you'll want to consider four main capabilities: (1) how well you can manage all the projects you're juggling through some sort of team dashboard; (2) whether you can hold online conferences, complete with visual conferencing capabilities; (3) how easy the service makes the process of sharing and revising the project's shared resources and documents; and (4) how quickly team members can communicate updates as well as update their shared calendars.

Fortunately, all of the sites here offer a free trial of some kind, so you can try out various features before you commit to a monthly or an annual subscription.

Keep Things Straight With Dashboards

Sosius's dashboard is one of the most customizable.
Most online collaboration services employ a browser-based central dashboard that provides an overview for navigating your work existence. This dashboard is, in turn, organized by "workspaces." You can think of a workspace as a spot with all the resources necessary for a team to keep pushing a specific project forward, such as schedules, updates on project milestones, central document repositories, and a place to record team comments and observations. Dashboards help you keep a handle on multiple projects.

Security is also a consideration: Workspaces can either be private, gated for just a specific set of people, or made public for a broader community to share.

Above is an example of the overall dashboard from Sosius--it's one of the most customizable, allowing you to add different applications and work areas or to move them around to wherever you'd like them to be. (Click on this and the other thumbnails for full-size images.)

An example of Central Desktop's tabbed interface.
Central Desktop and Basecamp, by contrast, make use of a tabbed interface. Central Desktop even lets you build out custom tabs, allowing you to create and define new tabs that are specific to your unique projects rather than relying only on what's already predefined. And Central Desktop's site is peppered with useful demonstration videos that walk and talk you through the steps to complete common tasks--a definite plus.

To return to the Sosius interface for a minute: One thing I really liked about it was that I could move different applications around or reprioritize them by dragging and dropping them. That means I was able to organize things according to how I think and work rather than deal with them in the order that some interface designer tells me they should be in. Other services allow you to make such tweaks, too; the point is, you should look for the flexibility you need in the interface of any collaboration offering that you might use.

Google Sites lets you create an intranet that is your collaborative workspace.
Google Sites considers each collaborative workspace as an intranet, and it provides templates for you to design and pull together an intranet that's appropriate for your project. The Docs application within the service is where you can shuttle content around for review.

One big advantage of Google Sites is that it can appear less cluttered than some of the other collaboration offerings. On the other hand, a disadvantage is that each individual project is treated as something very stand-alone, making things a little tougher for those of us handling multiple projects at once.

Let's Get Together, Now

Twiddla is a free, graphically oriented whiteboard service.
The ability of a collaboration service to support either planned or impromptu meetings is critically important. This is the whole premise behind Twiddla, a free whiteboard service that lets a team mark up graphics, photos, or even Web site designs. It is browser-agnostic and includes an audio function, so that you don't need a separate conference call to discuss the changes being made (provided you have a PC with an integrated microphone). Twiddla is really easy to use, and if your content is highly visual, you can mark it up and make changes in a straightforward manner.

Vyew's online meeting environment--a VyewBook.
Vyew likewise emphasizes meetings and conferences over the scheduling or milestone management functions of your team. It has two primary missions: First, to support online meetings in an environment it calls VyewBook; and second, to let participants share documents of many different types, including all of the different Microsoft Office application file types, plus video, graphics, Adobe Flash files, and screen captures. It does not, however, allow you to share applications as some of the big-name meeting services (such as WebEx or Microsoft LiveMeeting) do. Another drawback is that you have to deal with seeing ads during your conferences, unless you opt for one of the premium subscription offerings.

The HyperOffice online collaboration service's interface.
If you want project management plus meeting support, Central Desktop offers an online meeting capability that integrates with its team management features; another service, HyperOffice, is working on adding this feature through an application called HyperMeeting. It will charge an additional fee for this service. To my mind, integrated support for online conferencing is absolutely essential to a collaboration service, so the feature (albeit forthcoming in HyperOffice) puts these two services at the top of my list.

I hold out hope that the Sosius service, which currently doesn't offer this option, will eventually offer a third-party plug-in for online conferencing. It recently moved to create a software development platform called OpenSosius to encourage the introduction of add-on features.

Share and Share Alike

As a writer, one of the most frustrating parts of my existence is the editing process--not because I think I am above it, but because it's hard to track revisions or to make comments on those changes. Yet, collaboration is about group input. So, document sharing and commenting should be something your team considers carefully.

Most of the tools considered in this article--including Basecamp, Google Sites, Central Desktop, HyperOffice, Sosius, and Vyew--allow your team to upload files created on your desktop and make them available to specific team members for review and annotation. In some instances, you can define a workflow that shuttles the file around to appropriate people.

For example, a marketing brochure could be reviewed by a specific team member first and then passed along to someone else for in-depth editing and gathering of the requisite permissions before it is published. Or rights to view a confidential spreadsheet could be limited, with editing privileges restricted to only a few specific individuals.

If you haven't invested in desktop productivity tools and need some basic software for doing this, Central Desktop and Google Sites include their own applications for writing memos and documents, creating spreadsheets, or pulling together presentations. The Central Desktop applications are quite full-featured and are delivered through a relationship with a company called EditGrid. What I really liked about these applications was how quickly you could use them in context. It's quite simple, for example, to create a new spreadsheet sharing some quick financial information. (You can import an existing Excel spreadsheet if you'd like, which is also nice.) I found the Central Desktop spreadsheets to be more intuitive than the Google alternative.

Up-to-the-Minute Updates

To keep a project on track, you need to know when one of your colleagues has added an event or meeting to your group calendar or made comments related to a team document. That's why you should look for a service that integrates closely with your existing e-mail account and calendar--without requiring you to log in to your collaboration account if you aren't inclined.

Both the Sosius and Central Desktop services, for example, allow team members to send updates and attachments to a group. The updates are recorded within the appropriate workspace without requiring the member to sign in, an important feature for supporting offline work. (Other services may allow this, but the feature wasn't readily apparent.) Of course, this sort of alerting capability also works in reverse. So, when someone has altered a process or document within a workspace, team members know what's going on.

Visual cues about upcoming project deadlines might also be important for your team. Most of these services include some sort of task manager within the main dashboard where team members can see when things are due--and when something might be slipping.

As someone who has experienced her fair share of calendar synchronization problems (I juggle two different work calendars that don't ever seem to match up quite right), I urge you also to consider where and how you will manage your group's schedule as well as your own private appointments.

If your team is already using Microsoft Outlook, you should pick a service that supports it well. Both Central Desktop and HyperOffice spend a fair amount of time talking about their Outlook integration capabilities as well as their ability to create group calendars that aggregate the schedule of an entire team.

Google Sites and Basecamp, on the other hand, focus on people that don't have an Outlook legacy to worry about. Google, not surprisingly, emphasizes its calendar application, although it also supports Apple iCal. Basecamp allows users to subscribe to Milestones alerts from The Backpack Calendar (created by parent developer 37signals), or from iCal, Mozilla Calendar, or other calendars that support the iCalendar standard. If your collaboration service will become your central calendar, make sure it can support the following functions: marking certain events private, creating recurring or repeat meetings, delegating event creation to someone else, and publishing to an online location that both members and nonmembers can view via the iCalendar standard.

One additional application touted by Basecamp, but not the other services, is a time tracker that allows project members to formally track the time associated with certain tasks. This not only helps with billing appropriately, but it can also help postmortem when a team is gathering best practices information that can be applied to future projects.

Recap: Basics of the online collaboration services

If you're looking to integrate project management and collaboration software into your business, you might want to consider one of these services for your team. And if you're seeking an alternative to Microsoft's traditional desktop productivity applications, you'll find these to be great options. But even if you already use some Microsoft software, these services are a great way to add some discipline and structure to your collaboration processes without a huge up-front investment.

Following is a rundown of the services we've considered here:

37signals Basecamp
Highlights: Boasts one of the simplest interfaces of the services, and is the only one to include a formal time-tracking mechanism. Like Google, its parent developer has also created several other applications that can be integrated with the service, including the Highrise customer relationship management tool and Campfire, a group chat service that is compatible with the Apple iPhone.
Platform support: Cross-platform, including Safari 2 or higher.
Pricing: $25 per month for up to 15 projects and 5 gigabytes of storage; $49 per month for 35 projects and 10GB; and $149 per month (maximum) for unlimited projects and 50GB.

Central Desktop
Highlights: Offers a robust plug-in for online meetings and conference sessions, as well as encryption to secure e-mail alerts and status updates. Another key differentiator is that Central Desktop supports communication via your regular e-mail package (Outlook, Gmail, or even e-mail sent on a BlackBerry or Treo). That means you can send an update to the group that will be recorded within the appropriate workspace without even signing in.
Platform support: Cross-platform. One caveat: It currently does not support Safari.
Pricing: Starts at $25 per month for three workspaces, 10 users and 500MB of storage; $99 per month for a company plan that includes up to 25 internal members and 250 external users.

Google Sites
: As the name suggests, Google treats the creation of a team project page as if you're publishing an Internet or intranet site. Google Sites is part of the Google Apps family, and it encompasses features of Google Calendar and Google Documents. Templates let you quickly build out private pages where your designated team can comment and share. One drawback is that the different functions still seem very stand-alone.
Platform support: Cross-platform and cross-browser compatible.
Pricing: Free up to 6.6GB; $50 per user per year up to 25GB per account. You need to subscribe to get single-sign-on security features or features that let you integrate the service with your existing business applications.

Highlights: HyperOffice spends a lot of energy on its Web site positioning itself as a competitive option to Microsoft SharePoint. It is tightly integrated with Outlook and supports offline work (if you're on a plane, for instance). Those of you with formal project management backgrounds may be interested to know HyperOffice supports output to Gantt charts. An online meeting capability is currently under development.
Platform support: Cross-platform and cross-browser compatible.
Pricing: One-time setup of fee of $50; after that, a five-user base package is $45 per month, plus $10 for additional users.

Highlights: Although it doesn't include an online meeting feature, the service offers live chat and instant messaging functions. It allows for a great deal of customization, for both the dashboard and group workflows. Technology called OpenSosius allows third parties to build additional functions and applications that can be plugged into the main service.
Platform support: Cross-platform.
Pricing: Free up to 200MB of information.

Highlights: Strictly a free whiteboard tool for marking up very visual sorts of files, such as graphics, photos, or even Web sites. This is a grassroots application that won the Technical Achievement award at this year's South by Southwest festival.
Platform support: The service describes itself as "browser-agnostic."
Pricing: Free.

Highlights: Mainly focused on the interactive part of collaboration, supporting various online conferences and seminar formats, including reviews and annotations. Meeting content can be output to JPEG or PowerPoint formats if desired.
Platform support: Cross-platform. Requires Adobe Flash 9.
Pricing: The Vyew service is free for up to 20 participants, if you're willing to tolerate advertising. Otherwise, it costs about $7 per month for up to 25 participants (five of whom are not subjected to ads) or $14 per month for up to 45 participants (15 will have an ad-free experience).

Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and strategic communications consultant who has covered technology for more than 18 years.


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