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Collaborative tools: Groove and SharePoint

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The information in this article is current as of May 11, 2002.

Most organizations are thinking about providing some form of intranet for staff, clients or colleagues if they haven't done it already. Intranets (also called extranets if they are available from the public Web) are effective ways of posting shared documents, events, and other information to a broad group. They should be easy to use, and allow everyone in the group to post new information without programming skills. They should also provide varying levels of security and user permissions.

Organizations that want to provide private online collaborative tools to their members should look at two inexpensive and powerful tools: Groove Workspace and SharePoint Team Services. They have completely different approaches to collaboration, but both have the potential to change the way that organizations use team workspaces.

Groove (at www.groove.net) was developed by Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes. It is peer-to-peer software, meaning that collaboration and file sharing does not require any kind of server. Files and messages are sent directly between the computers of the people in the workgroup. It is highly secure - more secure than most VPNs - so it enables distributed workgroups (who may work in various countries and across different organizations) to collaborate on sensitive issues. All it requires is a free download from groove.net and a small license fee ($50 US) for members who want to participate in more than three workgroups. Groove has been around for a couple of years, but version 2, released last month, offers much more functionality.

Groove is revolutionary, as you would expect from the inventor of Lotus Notes. It is designed to allow full participation from people 'on the edge of the network' - individuals who do not belong to corporations with centralized I.T. services. It is perfect for small organizations who want to share project files among various workgroups without the expense of setting up networks or intranets. It comes with a variety of tools such as shared web browsing, discussions, document review, and is even integrated with Windows Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) to allow secure chats. Expect to spend some time learning it. RealWorld Systems is playing with it now to see if it is a good tool for our projects, and we haven't decided whether it will meet our needs. However, over the next year or so we expect it to be incorporated into many organizations. Anyone interested in the future of collaborative work should take a look at it.

SharePoint Team Services is included with Microsoft FrontPage 2002. It is hardly mentioned in its marketing material, but SharePoint is an extremely powerful and easy to use 'instant intranet'. It's well worth buying FrontPage just to get access to the Team Services. Anyone who is willing to spend some time learning the basics of FrontPage will be able to set up a complex intranet in a few hours. Hosting costs vary, and it's important to find a SharePoint web host that knows what it's doing. After a long search and several unpleasant experiences RealWorld Systems is using UnifiedWebMedia ($50/month US for up to 50 SharePoint users, including 20 email accounts and regular web hosting for the rest of your site).

For examples of the way SharePoint looks 'out of the box' with almost no customization, see SharePointTips, Innerhost and this demo. Microsoft shows several fancy SharePoint themes in its example sites.

There are disadvantages to both of these programs. SharePoint requires that users have Internet Explorer 5 or higher to work properly, with other browsers having limited functionality. (Remember, it's a Microsoft product.) It is reasonable to ask your staff to use a particular web browser in order to access an intranet, but it may be difficult to require volunteers or clients to switch to IE. On the other hand, SharePoint, unlike many other intranets on the market, is designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Groove also requires Internet Explorer 4 or higher and is not usable with older computers, requiring a minimum of 400 Mhz with 64 Megs of RAM. In addition, it's only available for the Windows platform. It will soon be possible to use Groove over a 'thin client', including 386s and Macs, through another software tool called PopG. Groove is attracting developers worldwide who are creating new software based on the Groove platform.

Friends of Netscape and foes of Microsoft will be distressed to see that many of the new online services are dependent on Internet Explorer. IE is becoming the standard browser in the same way that Word is the standard word processing program. Other programs are available and several are just as good, but their users must constantly deal with lack of compatibility with the 'standard'.

Two other instant intranet options that organizations can consider are Pathcom's WebdeskPro and CommunityZero. Webdesk offers shared calendars, files and other intranet features and costs about $3/month Canadian per seat. CommunityZero offers a full intranet at several prices (including free), with the most relevant costing about $50/month US for a small organization.

Gillian Kerr, Ph.D., C.Psych. - President, RealWorld Systems

gkerr at realworldsystems.net

Read my weblog at http://blog.realworldsystems.net

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