WebEx Serves Up Group Calendaring

 
 
By Cameron Sturdevant  |  Posted 2007-06-18
 
 
 
WebEx WebOffice delivers top-notch group calendaring along with basic database, discussion and document management functions.

WebOffice is especially suited for smaller organizations with five to 100 users with little or no IT infrastructure staff and with workers in multiple locations. WebOffice will likely appeal most to organizations that must share calendar events and documents without much network infrastructure setup.

In eWeek Labs tests of WebOffice, which was last updated in April, we were impressed with the services functionality, but we found the service a bit pricey relative to its rivals in the hosted collaboration space. At $60 per month for five users or $144 per user per year, WebOffice is nearly three times as costly as Google Apps Premier Edition.

WebEx Mail is an additional $4 per user per month, and WebEx Meeting Center will add $50 per seat per month. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption is an additional $300 per year and full-text search for documents is another $199 per year.

Another number to consider: WebOffice says it will be available at least 99.99 percent of the time, which in a year means that the service could be unavailable for up to 53 minutes.

The most important applications in the Web­Office suite are the group calendar, shared documents and databases. No hardware or software purchases are required to use any of these functions. While there is no client installation, we had to install Sun Microsystems Java 2 Runtime Environment for some portions of the on-demand functionality to work correctly.

Getting started

We found WebOffice easy to set up and use—WebEx does almost all of the work, including setting up the domain registration and initial accounts. The product can almost endlessly be customized, however, and that is where we spent much of our testing time.

The first thing we had to understand is that while WebOffice has a documents tab, the feature is for the storage and management of shared documents that are created by other programs. These other document sources can be Microsoft Word, PDF documents or simple text documents, among others. There is no native word-processing functionality in WebOffice.

The product guided us through placing our documents in a group folder, for which we could extend access to as many or few users as we chose. The group folder owner can also designate the access level for each member, specifying if a member is a manager or has read-only or read-and- write access to documents in the folder.

In what will likely be seen as a throwback to yesteryear, documents can be tagged with metadata, including keywords and descriptions for group members to use to search for documents within folders. As we noted above, full-text search—which weve come to expect as a core feature—is available for a fee.

We found that using documents stored within WebOffice documents could be cumbersome. We uploaded our test documents to the service, and then, while logged on under a separate user account, we downloaded one of our test documents by right-clicking on the file name and saving the target to our local computers.

We could then modify our test documents, but we had to manually replace the document in the shared folder. To ensure that no one else modified the file while one user was working with it, we used a check-out flag that alerts others that we are working on the file.

We also used Web folders that we created in our Windows desktop systems. We accessed the Web folders via Windows Explorer without having to open a Web browser to access the shared files. We were able to work on shared Word, Excel and PowerPoint files that were stored in these shared folders, but we always used the file check-out feature to ensure that only one document was the final work product.

One of the most convenient aspects of using Web folders was the speed of upload. We were able to set up a Web folder in our Windows Explorer tree that showed the entire library of documents. We were able to drag and drop files on the tree, which is much faster than doing it through the WebOffice user interface.

Calendar

The shared calendar is the shining jewel in the Web­Office crown. We found the WebOffice calendar easy to use, and we appreciated its handy features for scheduling resources, such as meeting rooms, and for handling all aspects of inviting participants.

Because our Web­Office instance included the optional WebEx Mail function, we were able to send participants invitations that they could respond to via e-mail.

We were able to add participants from a drop-down list of WebOffice members, and, from the same screen, we could check availability to ensure that participants were available for the meeting. We could add participants from outside our site by either choosing them from the shared contact list or by entering their e-mail addresses.

For Windows users, we were also able to use the WebOffice Desktop Assistant, which is currently the closest thing Web­Office has to an offline client. The WebOffice Desktop Assistant popped up event reminders even when we were working offline and disconnected from WebEx Mail. The Desktop Assistant is a separate download and installation that is required on each system that will use the feature.

We could set the calendar for individual use or shared use with others. Other users can either view, or view and make changes. We were able to see free/busy time regardless of the individual calendar settings of our users when we scheduled events and checked for availability.

The biggest weakness with the calendar is that we were unable to drag mail messages onto it to create new events. While it wasnt the end of the world to open a mail message and then create a new event, this seems like basic functionality that should be added to the suite. As it was, we had to bounce back and forth between the message screen and the new event window to capture all the meeting details we wanted to set up.

WebOffice ships with a rather impressive database feature, along with eight sample databases covering a range of basic business functions, including asset management, sales forecasting, CRM (customer relationship management) and time sheets. If the included databases are viewed as templates from which customized applications can be created, then organizations will likely be pleased with the modest power of the product.

We could also create databases from scratch, but organizations should consider that customizing and implementing the database functions in WebOffice would require considerably more effort than whats needed to use any other aspect of the product.

The database functions can be almost endlessly tweaked and business owners should, after much planning and thought, be able to get useful reports from the shared database function. As noted, however, this portion of WebOffice is far from plug and play, and a database consultant or at least a highly motivated staff member should be assigned the job of creating new database functions or modifying the existing templates.

Companies that are considering deploying the WebOffice service should be prepared to have users possibly go through a one-time installation of the JRE, which takes a few minutes.

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