Mid-size and large enterprises are rushing to adopt collaboration tools such as Microsoft Office SharePoint and IBM’s Lotus Notes with Quickr – and with good reason. These programs help distributed teams communicate more effectively, manage projects and shared materials, while saving companies travel costs and reducing travel-related productivity losses.
Implementing SharePoint or Notes is probably beyond the abilities and resources of most small businesses, but smaller companies can get many of the same capabilities with easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive hosted or software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
We look at three such programs here: the e-mail-centric BlueTie from BlueTie Inc.; CentralDesktop, a more project-oriented tool from Central Desktop Inc.; and GoToMeeting, a Web conferencing service from Citrix Online LLC.
Because they’re Web-based, people outside the corporate firewall, including employees working at home, suppliers and customers, can also easily participate, as long as they have an Internet connection. SaaS offerings are very inexpensive, and in some cases free.
These three are just a few of the many. In fact, Internet-based collaboration solutions are fast becoming a glut on the market, especially conferencing services. Recent new entrants include Yuuguu, a virtually free Skype-inspired teleconference service, HearMe, an inexpensive IP-based video conferencing and screen-sharing solution from AVM Software Inc. and SightSpeed, another video conferencing service.
And then there are tools organized around wiki – collaborative knowledge base production – and/or blogging capabilities, products such as Basecamp from 37signals LLC, Clearspace from Jive Software, Confluence from Atlassian and TeamPage from Traction Software.
“The market is messy,” notes consultant Kathleen Reidy, a senior analyst with The 451 Group. “It’s hard for companies to figure out which is the right technology for what they’re trying to do.”
BlueTie, launched in 1999, was one of the first hosted e-mail and collaboration services – the company says the very first. It was designed for small businesses as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft’s server-based Exchange e-mail and personal information management product.
BlueTie says it has 230,000 small business customers today and manages over four million e-mail boxes.
It’s an e-mail solution first and foremost, like Exchange, but also includes instant messaging (IM). And it lets users manage contacts, calendars and task lists online as well.
BlueTie offers e-mail and collaboration capabilities designed as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Exchange.
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All data, including e-mail, is stored on BlueTie’s secure servers so you can access it from any Internet-connected computer and some handhelds by keying in your user name and password.
BlueTie also offers some integration with Microsoft Office Outlook, including automatic synchronization between Outlook and BlueTie databases using BlueTie’s DirectConnect application. So it’s also possible to store BlueTie data locally.
Small companies can centrally manage calendars for a number of employees. A contact center agent or receptionist with proper authorization could book appointments for multiple field sales people, for example, and the meetings would appear automatically in the individual’s calendar view.
They can also centrally manage contact lists and maintain a Web-accessible store of shared documents and other files.
The BlueTie browser interface somewhat resembles Outlook. A button bar across the top shows links for launching the principal functions – daily summary, e-mail, contacts, calendar, tasks, etc.. The main work area, as in Outlook, displays whichever function you choose.
Along the left side are two smaller panels. One displays contacts – filtered if desired so that only personal, enterprise or shared contacts are shown, or only contacts currently online in BlueTie.
The other panel shows icon links for creating new e-mails, events, contacts and tasks. Clicking one launches a pop-up window with a fillable form. To book a meeting with members of your team or company, for example, you click New Event, type in a title, click Contacts to display the contacts list in the New Event dialog and click on names to invite to the meeting.
Then you can select a date using pop-up calendars, or click First Available, which analyzes the participants’ calendars and automatically books the meeting into the first time slot in which all are available.
BlueTie has begun to integrate additional online services from partners, including Web-based fax, e-mail marketing and travel booking through Orbitz. The integration with Orbitz is quite elegant.
You can choose departure point and destination and see flight options automatically overlaid on your BlueTie calendar, for example. And BlueTie recognizes e-mailed Orbitz e-tickets, automatically extracts the itinerary information and inserts it in your calendar.
The free version of BlueTie provides 5GB of online storage and support for as many as 20 people. The Pro version costs $5 per person per month and adds advanced features, including IM, Outlook integration and live technical support.
CentralDesktop, launched in 2005, was also designed primarily for small businesses, as a lower-cost, hosted alternative to Microsoft Office SharePoint.
The company says it has over 100,000 registered customers, but many only use the limited free version. About 1,500 companies pay for and use CentralDesktop regularly, most of them firms with between five and 100 employees.
Where BlueTie is built around e-mail, CentralDesktop is mostly about project management.
Companies can set up dedicated “workspaces” for each project and invite members – from inside or outside the company – to participate. Each member is assigned appropriate permissions, allowing them to read only, edit, add and/or delete items or have full administrative control.
CentralDesktop's workspace home page gives you a snapshot of your upcoming tasks and recent activities.
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Within each workspace, managers can set milestones or project goals and group tasks under them, along with dates for completion. They can then, with a few mouse clicks, assign milestones and tasks to members.
Members assigned a task receive e-mail notification, the due date automatically appears in their personal CentralDesktop calendar, and later they receive e-mails reminding them about tasks that are due soon or overdue.
Tasks and milestones appear in the main calendar for the workspace as well and in lists and reports, color coded to show priority and status.
CentralDesktop also gives work teams a rich set of tools for managing project-related documents, including version control and tracking functions, plus the capability to set up online discussions.
Members and managers can upload files of any type to the CentralDesktop server and capture Web pages and include them in the project document base as well. The built-in full-text search function indexes all popular file formats, including Microsoft Office and PDF.
Only one person at a time can “check out” a document to read or edit it. This helps avoid version conflicts. The main page for a document or Web page shows its revision history – who revised it and when – and all the comments that have been made about it, by whom, when and about which revision.
CentralDesktop will even automatically send out e-mail notification to team members when a document is revised or commented on. Recipients can reply by e-mail and their comments will automatically be added to the CentralDesktop database.
Members and project managers can set up discussion forums, which are tracked much the way documents are. They can also set up Web conferences – complete with screen sharing.
To make it easier to set up impromptu conferences, CentralDesktop detects online presence of team members using popular instant messaging services, including MSN and Skype.
CentralDesktop pricing is more complex than BlueTie’s. The free version provides 25 MB of storage and two workspaces for up to five members.
Paid workspace plans range from $25 a month for 250 MB, three workspaces and 10 members to $249 a month for 10 GB of storage, 100 active and unlimited archived workspaces and unlimited members.
Web conferencing is priced separately – the service is provided by a partner. Plans range from $35 to $175 a month.
GoToMeeting lets you self-provision and manage Web conferences and Web/audio conferences. It has lots of competitors, some already noted above.
Citrix makes no presence of this being a comprehensive solution like BlueTie or CentralDesktop, positioning it instead as a best-of-breed SaaS component.
You download and install a piece of client software, which integrates with Microsoft Outlook or IBM Lotus Notes, and/or with popular instant messaging services such as Yahoo, Windows Live, Skype or Google Talk. You’re also assigned a dedicated Web page at the Citrix site for organizing and managing scheduled meetings.
Organizers can schedule a meeting, or set up an impromptu meeting by selecting participants from an IM buddy list to automatically send them an IM with a link to the meeting.
Clicking the link in an IM or e-mail invitation takes participants to the Citrix Web site where they download and automatically install a small piece of software (a one-time process) that allows them to join the meeting. They don’t have to be registered customers or pay a user fee.
Citrix also integrates an optional “free” audio conferencing facility. Participants call into a conference number, included in the meeting invitation, and they pay only for long distance.
GoToMeeting provides flat-rate, secure Web conferencing and Web/audio conferencing.
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It’s possible to use other audio conferencing facilities, including low-cost services such as Skype, but they must be set up separately. (The integration with Skype only extends to sending invitations using Skype Chat.)
Once in the meeting, the organizer can share his computer screen or a specific application so that the rest of his screen remains hidden. Participants can use the GoToMeeting chat window as well as audio.
The organizer’s GoToMeeting software lets him manage the meeting – adding, dropping or muting participants. He can also use it to give control of his keyboard and/or mouse to a participant. This means GoToMeeting could be useful not just for conventional meetings but also collaborative document editing sessions.
The organizer can also make another participant the presenter, so they can share their screen or an application, or make another participant the organizer so the original organizer can leave but let the meeting continue.
Pricing is simple: unlimited meetings for a flat fee of either $49 a month, if you pay monthly, or $39 if you pay ahead for the whole year.
If you’re a small company and all you’re looking for is hosted e-mail and file, calendar and contact sharing of the kind offered by Microsoft Exchange, BlueTie is a pretty good deal at $5 a month or $60 a year per person.
But if you want a more comprehensive collaboration solution that includes lightweight project management and more sophisticated document sharing and management functions, CentralDesktop is a better bet – though clearly more expensive.
If you don’t want anything as involved as CentralDesktop and mainly just need to be able to quickly and easily set up online meetings, then GoToMeeting is an elegantly simple solution.
But don’t end your search here. The Internet is teeming with interesting online collaboration tools, with new ones popping up almost monthly. So go forth and collaborate.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.