Does groupware have to suck?

Two new products are hinting that groupware might be getting closer to fulfilling its promise.

commentary Groupware is a heartbreaker. For years I've been looking for PC and networking technologies that would actually help people work together better, and I've been disappointed with the available tools. But two products hint that groupware might be getting closer to fulfilling its promise.

Back in the pre-Windows era, I ran across an application called ForComment. It allowed a group to comment on a document and then pass around all the changes for comments on the comments. At the end of this process, you had a well-vetted document. While I loved it, the other folks in my workgroup found it difficult to use and didn't really understand how commenting on comments was supposed to help us get our jobs done.

To me, good groupware shouldn't require a special server or intervention from the corporate IS people. It should be fully configurable by the people who use it; it has to be something I can create, administer, and use without outside assistance. And it should be simple enough that people don't take one look at it and run away screaming.

THAT'S WHAT I LIKE about QuickBase, an online database management solution from Intuit, the Quicken people. Introduced in 2000, QuickBase is offered as an online service; the application itself lives at an Intuit server farm in southern California.

Because QuickBase is an online service, anyone with a Web browser can use it. And while it may not have the power of a big relational database, it has enough functionality for everyday use. It's also got all the ease-of-use you associate with Intuit products. And did I mention that anyone with a Web browser can use it? That means your far-flung coworkers can use your QuickBase databases wherever they happen to be and whenever they choose.

That alone makes QuickBase worth the price of admission. But none of that would matter if normal people couldn't use and administer their own databases without expert help. I'll stick my neck out on this and say that anyone who's managed a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet will quickly figure out how to make QuickBase do their bidding. (In fact, Excel spreadsheets can be cut-and-pasted directly into QuickBase, making for a very smooth transition.)

QUICKBASE IS OFFERED in two editions. The version for small businesses and individuals has been available for a while now. For $14.95, it lets you set up 15 databases, each 2MB in size, with a maximum of 15MB; $29.95 and $49.95 upgrades are available that give you more databases and storage space.

Intuit recently introduced a corporate edition. It costs $500 a month, gives you 50 databases supporting 75 users each and up to 500MB of storage; there are upgrades from there, too. The corporate version comes with significantly enhanced administrative tools. For details on the two versions and the differences between them, check out the QuickBase Web site and take advantage of the free trial offer.

ANOTHER GROUPWARE PRODUCT I like: Microsoft's SharePoint Team Services, a Web-based collaboration tool that comes bundled with FrontPage 2002. SharePoint provides a nice set of collaboration tools, letting you share calendars, upload and search documents, conduct polls, host discussions, and more. It also (no surprise here) integrates with Office XP apps, letting you save Office documents directly to a SharePoint Web site.

SharePoint isn't as easy to get up and running as QuickBase; I'd recommend you bring someone who knows Microsoft IIS to the install party. But once it's loaded, anyone who's ever used FrontPage or built a Web site on their own should have SharePoint sites up and running pretty quickly. One other bonus: The basic version of SharePoint is free (though you'll probably want to put the server on its own machine).

The trick for Intuit is adding greater database functionality without making the product too complex or crowded with features that few users need and only get in everyone else's way. And while Microsoft has been working on the collaboration thing for years, it has yet to deliver a product that's really caught on with information workers. But Microsoft will just keep plugging away at the problem, year after year, until they hit the groupware sweet spot.

I just hope that happens sooner rather than later. Give people groupware that works, and they might actually start buying software again.

What do you think? Have you ever used a groupware product that worked? Which one was it? Why did you like it? TalkBack to me below.

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