Collaboration software maker Near-Time introduced a beta of an online version of its applications as it hopes to convince customers that hosted communications and file-sharing tools enjoy benefits over client/server alternatives.
Dubbed as Near-Time.net, the online collaboration system offers tools for businesses to use for sharing and reviewing documents, scheduling and tracking work on projects, organizing content and publishing materials to the Web, among other features.
Built on Web services technologies, the company claims the system can also be used as an effective bridge between various client-server collaboration software packages from market leaders such as IBMs Lotus division and Microsoft.
By taking their own applications set online, Near-Time executives said they can offer collaboration customers the same types of advantages offered by other so-called "software as a service" providers including CRM specialist Salesforce.com.
Software as a service, or applications hosted away from an organizations physical premises by a vendor who maintains the data and programs, can offer a number of advantages over traditional enterprise software, proponents say. Those benefits include faster installation, lower overall costs and increased ease-of-use.
Near-Time Chief Executive Reid Conrad said that theres reason to believe that companies will find that using hosted collaboration tools offer the same types of advantages as other applications.
In addition to providing companies with a centrally accessible collaboration portal that be accessed from any computer connected to the Web, he said that partners can use the system as common ground that doesnt demand integration between companies internal collaboration programs.
"We know that companies are looking for a system that is fully usable regardless of platform which they can use to take internal collaboration and make it public with forum interaction, RSS feeds and a lot of other tools," said Conrad.
"By integrating the system around Web services and tying it into standards, we feel that we have something that, from an interoperability standpoint, facilitates use with any other collaboration applications or tools."
For instance, Conrad said, companies may want to open up feedback forums for their customers where people can share information or seek customer service without exposing their internal collaboration systems to the Internet at large or even their partners, for security purposes.
While many popular collaboration tools do not integrate with other applications, he said that Near-Time has developed connections into most well-known systems, allowing the hosted service to serve as the glue between companies own systems, saving them valuable time and money.
While Conrad believes that Near-Time.net will originally strike a chord with SMBs (small and midsize businesses), based on demand for lower-cost collaboration applications from such companies, he said that enterprises may too find that the hosted model works better in many situations, particularly when working with partners or a public audience.
Thus far, Near-Time said it has attracted roughly 1,000 beta users including people in smaller companies and divisions of Fortune 500 companies. Other hosted applications, including Salesforce.com, have followed a similar pattern in finding their way into larger companies.
"The core user base will be in SMBs and departmental deals, but were finding that workers in Fortune 500 firms are already using it to collaborate internally and with other companies," said Conrad.
"Over time the enterprise play looks to become more interesting; were finding that organizations like having the ability to bring in a browser-based interface to link to legacy apps like Lotus Notes."
In terms of pricing, Near-Time is planning to charge customers based on the amount of storage they demand using the application while offering free trials of the software.
For instance, a customer using 100MB of online storage will pay $4.95 per month for a subscription to the service, or $49.95 to buy a yearly plan. Businesses using 2GBs of space would pay $199.95 per month, or $1995.95 for the year.
Industry watchers said that Near-Time may have solid prospects in the SMB market, but questioned the products current viability among enterprise customers.
Robin Good, an independent IT analyst who runs the MasterNewMedia.org site, said that Near-Time has taken the functionality of a publicly available collaboration system such as search giant Yahoos online community groups and built something much better suited to businesses.
"Near-Time is refining a number of valuable components that consumers and enterprises need; I dont know if it will be killer application for the enterprise set, but Im pretty sure that for SMBs and other professionals that it could be successful," Good said.
"Its really like an extension of what people have been doing in Yahoo Groups without all the ads and with the benefits of newer things like RSS."
Good said that many enterprise companies remain suspicious of hosted applications and therefore may not be willing to give it their blessing, but that individual workers may chose to use the system anyways based on its simplicity.
"I dont know that youll see IT departments promoting this sort of tool yet, based mostly out of fear of losing security of the data involved, but those with highly secure architectures might be more open," Good said.
"It takes more than producing a nice service to make a dent in the market and be seen, but if they get enough exposure, Near-Time could potentially win some people over."