"I am endeavoring, Madam, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins." -- Mr. Spock, trapped on Earth in the year 1930
Most workgroups are stuck in the stone-knives-and-bearskins stage of collaboration tools. Their entire collaboration toolset consists of passing documents back and forth by e-mail. But the Web offers a variety of choices for workgroups looking to implement more advanced technology.
The Web offers tools to allow groups to collaborate on documents and spreadsheets, and to build libraries of reference materials, project documents, and shared to-do lists.
Tools from companies including Google and Zoho allow workgroups to get started at little or no cost. And they're easy to set up, too -- you don't need to be an IT manager to do it.
However, bear in mind before you jump in that you're giving information to a third-party company to store. If you're not in IT, you should talk to the IT department to be sure you're not violating company policy by using these services. And, even if you're in IT, before you use these services, you should talk to your company's legal and compliance offices to be sure you're obeying the law and regulations with regard to managing company's information.
Don't want to give your information to a third party? Wikis provide a good alternative for organizations looking to maintain control of their own software. Organizations can install wiki software on their own, internal servers.
Google Apps For Your Domain
The free Google Apps for Your Domain allows organizations to set up private-label versions of several of Google's collaboration services, including Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk chat. Basically, it's the Google services with your domain name instead of theirs.
Our reviewers Preston Gralla and Barbara Krasnoff gave the free Google Calendar high marks for the way it deals with shared calendars: "You can add as many iCal-based or shared private calendars as you want -- Google lists them all on the side of the window. You then check off which ones you want visible on your calendar at any one time, which means you can have a load of shared calendars available without crowding your interface with all of them at once. For example, you can uncheck your kids' schedules and just look at your business appointments."
Google Docs and Spreadsheets
For more advanced collaboration, the free Google Docs and Spreadsheets allows users to create Microsoft Office-compatible word-processing and spreadsheet files. Mostly, people talking about these applications focus on how well they function as replacements for Microsoft Office. But they also have collaboration features: Users can invite others, by e-mail address, to share documents, edit them simultaneously, and publish them to the world.
Google Apps Premier Edition
Google advanced the state of Web-based collaboration tools significantly on Thursday when it announced Google Apps Premier Edition, which combines Google Apps for Your Domain and Google Docs and Spreadsheets, with features designed especially for business.
Google Apps Premier Edition includes e-mail, calendar, chat, word processor, and spreadsheet, plus 10 Gbytes of online storage, and APIs for integrating the services into businesses' own software, priced at $50 per user per year. Google also makes support available for the services.
The free Google Notebook allows users to compile libraries of Web clippings of parts or all of Web pages, including text, images, and links. The notebooks of reference and research materials can be shared.
Other companies offer services similar to Google's collaboration tools.
Zoho Projects is an online project management tool that combines task management, calendaring, reports, time tracking, forums, and file sharing. It's free for open source projects, and starts at $5 per project per month.
BlueTie offers a suite of tools for online collaboration, including e-mail, scheduling, to-do lists, contact management, file back, and file sharing. It's free for up to 20 users, and $4.99 per user per month after that.
37signals makes the collaboration tool Basecamp, which includes to-dos, file-sharing, message boards, milestones to keep track of due dates, and time tracking. Basecamp is free to manage a single project, and $12 per month for up to three projects with 200 Mbytes of storage for file sharing. The price continues to escalate based on the number of projects and amount of storage for file sharing, with the highest-priced plan buying unlimited projects and 20 Gbytes storage for $149 per month.
Wikis are the grandparents of Web-based collaboration tools. A wiki is a dead-simple way of building Web sites; using simple text syntax on Web pages, users can, without much technical knowledge, create links from text to existing Web pages, either inside or outside the wiki, and they can easily create new pages as they go while simultaneously linking to the new pages.
In their pure form, wikis allow anyone to edit them, but many wikis nowadays offer access control and workflow tools to keep meddling hands out, and minimize damage by the well-meaning clueless.
Zoho offers a free service to let users create wikis.
Google-owned JotSpot was a commercial wiki pioneer; they're temporarily closed to new accounts now.
Socialtext is available for free for up to five users and for open source projects, and pricing starts at $95 per month for up to 20 users. The company makes its software available as open source for free.
For people who prefer to roll their own, there are a wide variety of open source wikis available -- just install the software on your own server, either on the public Internet or a private intranet or extranet, and you're good to go.
Of course, Wikipedia is the big daddy of all wikis, and it's a great place to start learning about wikis, and finding links to wiki software. Wikipeida runs on MediaWiki software, which is open source, and therefore available for you to build your own wiki.
Illustration by Ryan Etter