By Michael Caton  |  Posted 2004-08-16 Print this article Print

Companies looking for a simple tool for collaborating on documents and Web content will find Near-Time Inc.s Flow has good document collaboration features and a low-overhead peer-to-peer distribution mechanism. However, Flow suffers from some typical Version 1.0 shortcomings, and its support for only the most recent version of Mac OS 10 certainly limits its appeal.

Released last month and priced at $99 per user, Flow 1.0 is also an affordable solution for companies that need a department-based collaboration tool.

Although sharing content externally is free for the first 90 days after the initial release, Near-Time will charge a network and software upgrade subscription fee of $30 per user per year to access Near-Time.net for collaborating across networks.

During eWEEK Labs tests of the applications document authoring and collaboration, we found that Flow provides a decidedly Lotus Notes-like experience in tests. Flow uses document and discussion markup and structuring mechanisms that are similar to those of Notes but with some twists . In addition to being able to create and collaborate on content within Flow, we could also receive RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds and collaborate on Web-based content .

From a user perspective, we found Flow was intuitive to use in tests. The main Flow Space window is organized in a Microsoft Outlook-like way with organization elements for folders (in Flow, folders are called Folios) located in collapsible panes on the left side of the screen.

On the document (Pages) editing window, we used the left panes for one-click navigation to a Pages organization elements, which are essentially hyperlinklike flags, called Markers, in a document.

Searching for content is a key element of Flow, and we found the integrated search tools useful for quickly finding pages.

Flow supports several collaboration and publishing options for sharing content beyond the peer-to-peer network. We could also distribute content via e-mail, over the Web or using Apple Computer Inc.s iDisk. These mechanisms dont support all Flows collaborative capabilities, however. Document history isnt available via e-mail, for example.

In addition to using Flow to store RSS content and build discussions around that content, companies can use Flow to create and manage RSS feeds.

Using Flow, we organized documents within shared and private folders. Creating and updating content was easy in tests. Although limited to rich text, Flow does have good document organization and topic-flagging capabilities that make document navigation easy. Sharing and viewing document updates and comments are straightforward. Comments reside in a separate pane in the document window rather than in documents using conventions such as sticky notes or collapsing comment sections.

Users have the option of editing the same document simultaneously, but this can be tricky because a user can potentially commit his or her changes without integrating other users changes. Flow tracks changes within a document, rather than checking documents in and out individually. Flow can also track a documents revision state to help a user resolve or ignore changes from other users. We edited most documents in draft mode when sharing changes, but Flow let us reconcile changes against another version or claim the current page as the master document, essentially ignoring other changes. We had the option of setting preferences for how changes are committed to document when we stopped working on one, including automatically preserving changes, saving changes in draft state and prompting when closing a document.

When editing documents simultaneously, we also lost some of our changes. We think a check-in/check-out feature, automated alerting or real-time chat capability would be a useful addition.

Groove Networks Inc.s Groove application provides an alerting mechanism that allows users to prioritize changes to content. Such a feature would be a welcome addition to Flow.

Although Flow was generally easy to use, there are some elements of the user interface that we found trying. For example, we could share a document only after opening it, rather than from the main window. Sharing a document happened nearly instantaneously in our tests. User information, such as the Flow ID thats used to identify users uniquely, cannot be edited after installation, but deleting a configuration file solves this problem.

Flows P2P connection runs on Mac OS 10.3s Rendezvous networking feature and is managed similarly to Grooves P2P collaboration client, in that Near-Time provides Flows connection service via a relay server. Users need not purchase a subscription to the relay service to communicate internally.

Near-Time is developing a relay server that a company can deploy internally. Unlike Grooves namesake P2P application, Flow doesnt encrypt content sent over the network.

Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at michael_caton@ziffdavis.com.

Check out eWEEK.coms Messaging & Collaboration Center at http://messaging.eweek.com for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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