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12/28/2006
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Review: BlueTie Does Collaboration On Demand

This "meat-and-potatoes" collaboration service offers enough services and administrative features to be taken seriously.

The term "small office" is becoming more and more inaccurate as businesses find that their employees, associates, clients, and customers don't live in the same city or even the same country. As a result, collaboration software has become a necessity for many companies, even those -- or especially those -- who are official classified as "small."

However, today's collaboration applications require a level of administration effort and hardware infrastructure that few small businesses can support. Microsoft Exchange does offer the type of functionality a small business would like to have -- and a reputation for consuming budget dollars and person-hours that could send you running in the opposite direction. With any luck, you might run right into BlueTie.

BlueTie is a Web-based service designed to compete with server-based solutions like Exchange by delivering a hosted suite of business collaboration tools that require no hardware, software, or IT support.



BlueTie's simple interface belies its wide-ranging functionality.
Click image to enlarge.

BlueTie's suite of applications is built on the software-as-a-service model (SaaS), and includes e-mail, scheduling, to-do lists, contact management, file backup, and file sharing. It wraps these functions into an administrable package and offers them in two versions: free (or almost -- you may eventually notice some advertising), and $4.99 per user per month. The free account allows the owner/administrator to create up to 20 user accounts, each with 5 Gbytes of storage space on BlueTie's servers. The paid service offers more capacity (10 Gbytes per user) and features like an internal instant-messaging application, Outlook integration, support for mobile devices like Treos and BlackBerrys, and toll-free support.

A Subtle Interface
What BlueTie does is hardly revolutionary. E-mail, calendars, and file-sharing are familiar functions, even as Web services. You could duplicate almost everything about BlueTie from Google piece-parts. But BlueTie adds two critical pieces. One is a clean, usable interface that ties the pieces of the service together logically and works very quickly. The other is the administrative control that makes BlueTie the business-grade application that its name cleverly implies.

BlueTie looks like it's all business from the moment you log in. It's not afraid of white space on the screen, and it doesn't waste any cycles on eye candy. The application's functions are invoked for the most part by square-cornered buttons that give BlueTie a your-father's-Web-design look. (The calendar design, in particular, suffers compared with, for example, Yahoo's group calendar.)

But overall, plain is not a bad thing. With less screen distractions, you can do what you need to do done faster, and BlueTie works with admirable speed. Even things that you might expect would cause a measurable delay, like downloading your in-box view from the server, seem comfortably quick.

That's good, because being Web-based gives BlueTie a lot to overcome out of the gate. Web browsers and Web protocols historically have not made for richly functional Web applications. Ajax programming techniques have improved things dramatically, and BlueTie takes good advantage of them to provide as rich an application interface as it can. It's still not as rich as one might want, of course -- you cannot drag and drop files from one folder to another, for example, and there is no right-click context menu with a "delete" choice that would help you triage your in-box.

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