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Review: Groove Virtual Office

Coordinating employees, co-workers, and the data they share has never been a simple task: E-mail can be missed, document edits can conflict, invitations to meetings may not sent. Groove Virtual Office--slated to become part of Microsoft's product lineup--delivers a tightly integrated approach to groupware that any business, large or small, can take advantage of.

InformationWeek Staff

March 20, 2005

5 Min Read

Coordinating employees, coworkers, and the data they share has never been a simple task: e-mail can be missed, document edits can conflict, invites to meetings not sent–the list goes on and on. Most smaller offices, if they have any kind of "solution," usually rely on some kind of patchwork of separate software, while larger businesses often turn to expensive custom solutions. Groove Virtual Office fills the middle ground with a tightly integrated approach to groupware that any business–large or small–can take advantage of.

Simply put, Virtual Office lets people share data in multiple and very flexible ways. File sharing, project management, and data workflow are all integrated under the Virtual Office shell. Installation is simple and straightforward. A system try icon gives you quick access to basic functions, and a Folder Sync option for file sharing easily integrates itself into the Windows Explorer.

Virtual Office consists of two main components: the Workspace and the Launchbar. The Workspace is where you set up a specific work team; the Launchbar lets large offices juggle multiple Workspaces and holds the Virtual Office Contacts list where you can quickly access people in the Virtual Office environment as well as your outside contact list. Here, you can see who's online at a glance, send e-mail, invite them to chat, and other basic functions.

The Workspace is where the heart of Virtual Office lies. You can create your own basic Workspace with Virtual Office's built-in templates, called tools, or you can download Groove's pre-built tools with specific tools for a wide variety of situations, ranging from HR job interview tracking to sales trade-show management. There's even a tool that lets mobile users outside the network access Virtual Office functions through a Microsoft SharePoint-enabled Website. Groove's pre-built workspace tools library is extensive, covering many business tasks across a variety of departments.

If your office requires a more customized solution, Virtual Office lets even a non-technical user build a homebrewed tool. Virtual Office also supports HTML and basic scripting, so anyone with Web development know-how can add even more advanced features. The extensive help files are excellent, especially compared to most other commercial software. This is a particularly good thing since the more advanced features, such as building custom tools, can be difficult to navigate in the beginning. However, for basic end-users it's a very straightforward experience, somewhat like using a network-enabled PIM/project manager on steroids.

There are three default levels of permissions as tied to three types of users in Virtual Office: managers, participants, and guests (who are limited to read-only). Naturally, managers are given more leeway than their underlings in Virtual Office. By default, managers set Workplace invites (or un-invites) to people, as well as modify, add, and delete tools according to their needs. However, there is permissions management so that permissions can be customized to suit specific needs.

Regular grunts will find some very useful goods within Virtual Office aside from the basic calendar, file sharing, etc. Notifications can be set for events such as when a co-worker enters a Workspace, or when there is new unread info. There is also some basic integration with Outlook, such as event sharing, and with Microsoft Office, where you can open a real-time co-editing session on in Word or a co-present function with PowerPoint. Expect to see more integration with Office and Windows features, because Microsoft just announced plans to acquire Groove.

File sharing is probably going to be one of the most used features in Virtual Office. Setting folders and files up with permissions is very simple. For basic file-version tracking, Groove only passes changes between documents, and no changes are passed until saved. In addition, alerts on files when content has changed can be easily set so you can stay on top of fast-moving projects. You can also stay in close touch with your team using the various real-time communications features, which are pretty slick. In addition to live text chat, and IM, a basic VoIP lets users communicate via microphone and speakers.

Of course, security is a concern when handling important data, so Virtual Office uses a 192-bit key default, but it supports a number of encryption schemes that can be customized as well. It should also be noted that Virtual Office is distributed; that is, it doesn't use a central server, making it a particularly good fit for a small office on a simple network. In addition, the hardware requirements are pretty minimal: Pentium 2 with 256MB of RAM. This means that even older notebooks can use Virtual Office.

There are different levels of Groove installations, and each is priced accordingly. But luckily, there is a free 60-day trail that will let you put the basic version through its paces and judge whether it works for you.

The Groove Virtual Office client is priced in three distinct varieties. File Sharing, at $69 per seat doesn't offer the advanced project management tools, and lacks Forms design tools. The Professional Edition at $179 adds task management, virtual meetings, and more. The $229 Project Edition offers additional project management features like graphical timelines, and resource assignment. A Small Business Starter Kit is also available which includes a 10-seat license, a two-hour online training session, and a higher level of tech support for $2,295. A number of Groove server solutions are also available for IT management in large deployments.

Groove Virtual Office is a highly flexible, scalable, and easy-to-use groupware program. Suffice it to say that Virtual Office has so many options, you'd be hard pressed in a small- to medium-sized business to find shortcomings. Once you find your way around the myriad of interface options, it's also easy to use, and even non-programmers can customize it (with a little bit of patience). Unless your business needs to build a solution from the ground up, Virtual Office should be able to cover most business needs.

Groove Virtual Office
www.groove.net

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