Saturday, February 28, 2009

Collaboration

Twittersummary: Researching Collanos, Google, Drop Box and other free tools to implement cross platform Microsoft Groove type features.

Although Microsoft offers generous pricing to non-profits like mine, they are still an expensive alternative and they still design for a world of fat desktops running Windows with IE as the browser. As a recent example, I set up a small Microsoft Groove environment for us to collaborate with some of our volunteers and chapter members on a small project. Given the peer to peer sharing aspect, we even had visions of this being a way to strengthen our COOP. We chose to set up our own relay server, but we could have certainly used Microsoft's systems to drive costs down. If we were able to avoid a few conference calls and travel, the startup costs would pay for themselves with only one project. Groove is really robust, it offers document collaboration and versioning, chat, calendar, tasks, discussion groups and hooks into the rest of the MS Office suite.

The trouble was, key members of the project team either didn't want to or could not load the Groove client (Windows only). The whole thing fizzled out as we found that we didn't really want to duplicate our email, calendar and chat features within the workspaces. We don't even use the system internally anymore, and as I write this, we are dismantling the infrastructure.

As an IT manager, the struggle continues for me: Microsoft makes some of the best software in the world as long as you drink their Kool-Aid and have only Microsoft products in your environment. As soon as you add one Mac, one Linux box, one Firefox install; things begin to become more complicated.

So, as we realized that Groove might not solve all of our problems I started to search for some replacements. I was looking for a way to collaborate with people who may not have much technical skill (install had to be easy), who didn't have Windows, who needed some security for the documents and who didn't have access to my Enterprise network. I'm not going to give an exhaustive review of each system below (I do have links at the bottom to other reviews that do this). Just a few quick sentences to give you some ideas about what I liked.

As a little side note, using these systems and the other systems that are appearing on the Web requires an account/password for each one. With all of the accounts I've created over time, it's getting impossible to keep track.

Collanos. They don't say it in their lead paragraphs, but Collanos might as well call themselves "Groove for everyone else". Users of Groove will recognize lots of the features (file sharing, discussions, group calendar, presence). The two big differences are that Collanos doesn't have hooks into my Office applications and Collanos has clients for the three leading OSes. Collanos is written in Eclipse (Java) so cross platform becomes easier to execute. Like Groove, Collanos is using a P2P model and regularly replicates when participants in the workspace are connected, so that one can go offline and continue to have access to the local copy of the workspace. I had a few issues with an early version crashing, but I've since used a more modern version and found it to be quite stable and usable. If you want Groove but can't use it for some reason, I would look at this first. Free to use, and they seem to be moving into the "pay for an SLA and better support" model. I like that model. The basic-for-free-pay-for-advanced-features model seems to be catching on in Internetland. It's a nice change from pay-upfront-and-you-can't-return-the-software-because-you-opened-the-box model.

Google Suite. I've been watching the Google suite develop it's offline parts. I can cobble together a good set of document collaboration and some groupware features using Google Docs, Google Calendar, and of course GMail, Chat and Google Groups. Google is not P2P (that means it requires the Google servers to be available to work). However, I'm watching the expansion of the Google Gears project that lets people keep offline copies of their documents. Maybe P2P features are on the horizon? If you don't want to have the people on your project download something to their browser, this can be a nice alternative as everything is web based and there's nothing to install on the client. Maybe it's because Google has so many apps now or maybe it's because there isn't a rich way to see the modules as a dashboard (though iGoogle is getting close) that this feels like a bunch of apps rolled together rather than one app that does many things.

DropBox. Sometimes, less turns out to be more. DropBox is actually what we are now using for our collaboration. After all that time, and exploration, we came to realize that in our case we already have pretty good calendaring and email capabilities. We really need a way to share files and update those files both at work and home. Drop Box meets that need pretty well. On my Mac and on Windows machines, the local replica of the online documents inserts itself pretty well in the File system (Finder and Windows Explorer). Drop Box has a nice feature where users can access the shared folders via a web interface if they are at a computer that does not have the client installed. Some people get confused by the fact that they can see the files on the website and see them locally so we've had some issues at work with file duplication.

Little things to think about:
- if one person backs up their local copy of the workspace then you have some DR built in
- simple text files in the workspaces can take the place of status and bulletin boards
- the person on the team with the worst connectivity and oldest computer is likely to impact what you are capable of using

Links:
Collanos
Groove
Drop Box
Google Apps

Other Reviews of these products:
Collanos:
techfold.com
ostatic.com

Drop Box
www.productivity501.com
www.theblog.ca

Groove (these reviews were the hardest to find)
webloc.infoworld.com
www.pcauthority.com.au

Google Apps
www.masternewmedia.org
www.brighthub.com


Other products that look like they might be of interest if you are trying to solve this same problem.
http://drop.io
http://www.basecamphq.com/
http://www.contactoffice.com/
http://www.huddle.net/
http://www.solodox.com/