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11/10/2004
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Creating a Full-Time Collaborative Team Environment

Recently a company sought tools to support their distributed team. The team required a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools, that supported features like document sharing, conferencing, project management capabilities, Outlook integration, and much more.  Could any one vendor come close to fulfilling all of these objectives? Here's what David Coleman found out after evaluating about 30 different vendors.

A recent client has a management team that is distributed, but all with broadband connections. The team is working to develop an educational application that includes both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration components. The client asked us to evaluate team tools to support their distributed team that will need to work together closely over the next six months and will be working with an outsourced development team to bring this application to market.

The criteria for this team application at first blush seemed to be very reasonable, and there were about 30 vendors that we (CS) could think of off the top of our head that would meet most of these criteria. So what were the team criteria? We broke them into Synchronous and Asynchronous criteria, as we suspected (rightly so) that there was no one vendor that would meet this clients needs.

Asynchronous Collaboration Criteria:

?  Needs to provide a secure team space for the storage of documents and other content for the project. Security needs to be role based and flexible.

?  They also wanted rudimentary document management features such as: check in-check out, version control, WebDAV and document (not folder) level locking.

?  They wanted some rudimentary project management features (more than just task management) so they could tie task progress to specific resources and a personal/group calendar, but nothing as sophisticated as MS project

?  A contact manager that synchronized with Outlook

?  Supports threaded discussions (or Wiki's and Blogs)

Synchronous Collaboration Criteria

?  Support for Audio,Video and Data conferencing: Wanted good video multicasting that supported at least 15 fps in each window.

?  Wanted VoIP and conference calling with integration with PSTN transparently

?  Wanted presence detection and management, and the ability to see if a team member is online even when they are not in the team application (they also wanted presence integration with any of the consumer IM packages)

?  Support IM//Chat (and whisper- chatting with one specific person when in a group meeting)

?  Support for web conferencing for small team meetings (2-6 people) including: application viewing, application sharing, co-browsing, white board (with multiple cursors for group editing)

Common Criteria:   

?  Does not require a large download (none preferred) and is easy to install, use and administer

?  Needs to support cross platform (some of the team are on PC's others on Macs)

?  Wanted to do this on an ASP and did not want to host the HW or SW themselves

?  Wanted it for a reasonable price

?  System was flexible enough so that they could add and subtract team members or experts as needed.

With at least 40 vendors in the asynchronous collaboration space and 80 vendors in the real-time space we (CS) were not able to find one vendor that could meet these needs. So we decided that two or three might do the trick. On the asynchronous side to deal with the:

  • Threaded discussions
  • Secure, persistent meeting space, supports file storage and individual and group access
  • Project/task management
  • Group Calendaring/scheduling (linking tasks to calendar)
  • Document Management with check-in/check-out and version control
  • Document review, with some workflow and process management
  • Outlook and mobile synchronization
  • Cross platform support

We looked at these asynchronous collaboration programs:

  • e-Room (now part of Documentum/EMC) - E-room has been integrated more with Documentum that has its roots in document management. E-room also does presence detection, but only if your in the same room, and it does a reasonable job of project and task management and has excellent security. Eroom.Net, which is browser based would allow both Mac's and PC's to access content securely, but it is expensive, $600/mo. for a 10 person project team (with one community). Eroom is really enterprise oriented (now that they are owned by Documentum/EMC) and really focused on supporting a larger enterprise than a small distributed team.
  • Intranets.com - is what we are currently using in house at CS (after using Groove 2.X for a year). Intranets.com did fit a lot of the asynchronous criteria and does provide an easy-to-use, inexpensive on-line team environment. Unfortunately they do folder-level locking, and although Intranets.com resells Netspoke, as its real-time solution, Netspoke is more for web presentations (1 to many) rather than e-Meetings. Intranets.com also has very limited project management features, just task tracking and notification, but no ability to link to a resource or calendar.
  • Groove (the Internet version through PopG). The PopG version Groove avoids the dreaded 30 MB Groove download and just requires a recent level browser to use. In addition they have some other tools like Team Directions, which is a project management tool that integrates into PopG (and Groove). Since we looked at Groove they have come out with version 3.0 (virtual office) that has a lot of great new features and the ability to do some workflow through the new forms tool. Groove also has some real-time features built in like presence detection and does task and some project tracking. It also has threaded discussions and is a secure, persistent meeting place for file storage, with a high level of security and granularity. In addition it supports Outlook synchronization and has a feature to support offline work when not connected. The new Version 3 offers an expanded workflow capacity through the new forms tool. PopG is $30/mo./user or $285/mo. for a 10-user team package. Team Directions is $900 for a 10-user license (one time fee).

We looked at these synchronous collaboration programs:

?  Elluminate 6.0 (beta) - only supports one video window

?  WebConference.com - so far the best candidate, but requires a special server to support high bandwidth video conferencing for multiple people (some additional cost here)

?  Ivisit - Only got to evaluate iVisit lite not Pro

?  Qnext - integrated with all the consumer IM clients for presence

?  Marratech - does not support app sharing (currently)

?  ESPRE Solutions (eMeeting product not yet released) - did not support persistent meeting rooms

Although we are still in the process of evaluating the "Full-time" team tools for this client, the current front runner is a combination of: Intranets.com and Webconference.com with potentially a tool like Trillian that allows them to connect to all of the major consumer IM systems, and a simple project oriented tool like eProject.com ($395/user/year) or Sherpa Project ($274/mo for 10 users), iTeamWork (free) or BaseCamp ($19/mo. for up to 10 projects).

The idea here is not all of the team needs a tool like this, and that only 2-3 people on the team need these greater project management functions. Unfortunately, multi-protocol IM systems like Miranda (which are free) are only available on the PC. However, there is also a free multi-protocol IM system for the Mac (OS X) called Fire and supports: AIM?, ICQ?, irc, Jabber, MSN?, Yahoo! Messenger? . However, Pexit, Trillian, BuddySpace (built on top of Jabber) and Giam, all do support multiple IM protocols, work on PC, Mac and Linux and are free (open source programs).

The Bottom Line

Although we have not finished the evaluation and recommendations for our client, we were surprised to find that there really were no collaboration companies out there that could meet all the criteria (features/functions) our client wanted at a reasonable price per user for a small distributed team. In a meeting with ESPRE Solutions and a subsequent demo, it sounds like they are going in the right direction with a product they showed at the Streaming Media West show, but the product is still in development and will not be out until Q1, 2005. The other direction we could look at is to look at a portal front-end which could hook programs with the collaborative functions required by the above criteria. Plumtree is a good candidate in this respect as they have gadgets (scripts) that have allowed a number of companies to link into their portal. Eroom, OpenText and Lotus are all hooked into Plumtree, as collaboration vendors (asynchronous), and some of the synchronous tools could be easily integrated through the Plumtree Developer Kit.

Find out in next month's Guru's Corner, how the evaluation turns out and who gets "voted off the Island."

{mosimage}David Coleman is the Founder and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies. This column is his ideas and comments and do not necessarily represent the views of all of the analysts at Collaborative Strategies.

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