Work together, apart

In the distant past (say, five years ago), project collaboration was often a logistical feat; it required thatpeople fly cross country to gather in a conference room, armed with only a project schedule, a set of white-boardmarkers and a determined attitude. Nowadays, it's unremarkable to work with business partners in another stateor to serve customers a continent away.

In the distant past (say, five years ago), project collaboration was often a logistical feat; it required that people fly cross country to gather in a conference room, armed with only a project schedule, a set of white-board markers and a determined attitude. Nowadays, it's unremarkable to work with business partners in another state or to serve customers a continent away. As a result, a new set of Internet tools are emerging, promising to help you collect information, share it with teammates and get the work done.

To explore the range of collaboration tools, we looked at three applications: eRoom Technology Inc.'s eRoom, Framework Technologies Corp.'s ActiveProject Server and Intraspect Software's Intraspect Knowledge Server. (We ignored well-known groupware like Lotus Notes, as you're likely familiar with it.) They're all good at what they do, varying mostly by paradigm, but we'd choose eRoom for the next collaborative project we work on.

Similar Blueprints
These collaborative applications have a lot in common. All use the model of a project area or electronic room in which approved participants may work. Team members can exchange data, correspond with other participants, hold discussions about the project and track its progress, with several levels of project and item access (from read-only to administrator).

Each server runs on Windows NT, presenting a browser-based front end to the user. The servers integrate with e-mail clients, allow users to search the project database, and inform users about document or item changes. Each can be run on an intranet, or you can host them as an ASP. ERoom also provides with monthly billing, if you want to outsource the whole enchilada.

What sets each program apart, however, is not so much the difference in its feature set but rather the manner in which the features are presented to the user. Intraspect presents the user with a personal project portal (say that three times fast), eRoom extends the desktop metaphor, and ActiveProject's ambience is more like electronic Web post-its than a rowdy community. None of these is inherently better than the others, but you'll need to judge your customers' preferences, and the nature of their collaboration, before you make a choice. Another point of differentiation is access speed. ActiveProject and eRoom have pretty pages, but, as a result, they're pain fully slow on a 28.8 modem --the typical access speed from a hotel. By contrast, Intraspect's Web pages are simple, which in this case is a distinct virtue.

Make Room For This Tool
The desktop metaphor in eRoom will be familiar to most users, with folders, in-boxes and file attachments. You can drag and drop files to your eRoom, and Microsoft Office applications can launch automatically. (The ASP hosted is limited in that regard, and in a few others, too. For instance, in a discussion, you can't see the text to which you're replying.)

We like a lot of things about eRoom, some of which seem unimportant until you've worked on a long project with remote participants. Its discussion forum, if simple, is one of the best we've seen in a while. The software lets you attach a vote or poll to discussions, which (we know from experience) can help a team reach closure on a long-debated item. The software's design makes it one-click easy to go to the next unread item, and it's simple to assign items to people or set action-item priorities. It's so wel-implemented that you'll actually use this feature. You can see who's been in the eRoom and when they last logged in, so you can find out if your business partner received your urgent requests to finish the proposal by Monday.

Electronic Semaphores
Active Project has several pieces. The server runs on your Windows NT Web server; it relies on an ex ternal database, such as Microsoft SQL Server. You create, revise and publish Web sites with the ActiveProject Builder application, which can run on any Windows client on your network. Team members can use the site through a Web browser, but it requires a plug-in to take advantage of all ActiveProject features.

While the Builder application does an adequate job at letting you build, manage and publish the site's content, you won't be tempted to dump your copy of GoLive or Dreamweaver. More importantly, the administrator or designer determines an ActiveProject project structure; in contrast, with eRoom and Intraspect, the users collaboratively create the site content.

ActiveProject feels more like a "regular" intranet with collaborative add-ons, such as tracked communications, requests for input and tabbed-folder interface. That may sound like criticism, but it's not meant to be; while it didn't ring our chimes, ActiveProjects' more hierarchical approach (imagine footnotes on a Web site) will be a great fit for some customers and some projects.

Unique to ActiveProject is its ability to work with CAD files. Its CADBundler links external reference (XREF) files to a CAD file, and an optional SolidWorks add-on is available, so participants can accurately view and zoom into CAD drawings. With another add-on, you can integrate Microsoft NetMeeting Web conferences into your project site. Site administration might be bothersome in a larger enterprise or when participants change often, be cause you must specify how many user licenses are assigned to each project, and the task must be accomplished at the server, not via a Web interface.

Inspecting Intraspect
Intraspect's portal approach makes a distinction between a user's private site and his public, shared data. We think it's especially appropriate for projects in which participants work on their own for a while, before sharing the results with others.

Intraspect lets you "subscribe" to documents, discussions and URLs, keeping you notified of changes via e-mail or on your personal page. You even can save a search query as a subscription, so that when a participant adds a document mentioning your favorite keyword, you're auto matically brought up to date. It's simple, powerful and elegantly done.

While all of these applications integrate seamlessly with e-mail, Intraspect does a particularly good job. You can set up e-mail accounts for discussion databases, or as public in-boxes, even for people not participating directly in the project. When you "tell someone" about an Intraspect item, the URL is automatically e-mailed to your recipient, making it easy for someone to get involved. Intraspect has LDAP synchronization, a spider to index and search Lotus Notes databases from the Intraspect Knowledge Browser Search user interface, and user database import features. It supports Microsoft's Web folders and XML, is administrator-friendly, and has thorough data-field explanations.

Sum Of The Parts
As you've undoubtedly figured out by now, we like each of these apps. We recommend eRoom because of its myriad nuances --many of which we didn't even have room to report on here. Plus, we figured out most of its features without peeking at a Help file, and so did our "test subjects." When your teammates are in Belgium, the last thing you want to waste time on is tech support for the tool that's supposed to make it easier to communicate.

eRoom 4.1

eRoom Technology Inc.

MSRP: $10,000/server and $200/user; ASP version starts at $199/month for four usersActiveProject Server Version 2000

Framework Technologies Corp.

MSRP: Starts at $34,995Intraspect Knowledge Server 3.0

Intraspect Software

MSRP: Starts at $720/seat

The 411 On Collaboration

  eRoom ActiveProject Intraspect
Team news/bulletins yes yes yes
File attachments yes yes yes
Integration with e-mail yes yes yes
User notification of new content yes yes yes
Search site content yes yes yes
URLs or other links yes yes yes
CAD support no yes no
Discussion forums yes yes, tracked communications yes
Voting/polls yes no no
Assign or route tasks/content to participants yes yes no
Track changes yes, version tracking no yes, notification of change
Lists (such as to-do lists) yes no no
Web conferencing no yes, Microsoft NetMeeting no
Live paging or chat yes no yes

eRoom 4.0