Strength in Groups

New tools take some of the labor out of collaboration

Web-based collaboration tools that address the specific needs of far-flung project teams are starting to hit the market. eWeek Labs tests of three showed that these products can streamline setup, ease communications and shorten the life cycle of projects in an online workplace—as long as organizations get the right tools for their jobs.

We tested three offerings that represent the state of the art in this arena: eRoom Technology Inc.s eRoom 5.0, Inovie Software Inc.s Team Center 4.0.3 and SiteScape Inc.s hosted WebWorkZone system. All three would lighten a variety of project team workloads, but eRoom 5.0 had the best overall price and capabilities of the three products tested, even though it wasnt the best at everything.

Tests also showed the major differentiators were price and network bandwidth requirements. Small outfits and companies on tight budgets might prefer eRooms economy-minded price—$9,999 per server. Team Center 4.0.3 is better-suited for companies that have Java environments and desire strong customization capabilities. Sites with limited network space or collaboration expertise should look to hosted options such as WebWorkZone.

To put the products through their paces, we tested them using one server and five clients and/or users. We compared each products messaging components, including chat, threading and e-mail capabilities, with an eye toward platform interoperability, project and workload scalability, and ease of use.

As expected of hosted products, WebWorkZone was the easiest to set up because no download was necessary. The user interface, with its handy setup wizards to guide users through each step, further streamlined the process.

eRoom 5.0s GUI was the most useful and least difficult to use because its drag-and-drop procedures moved documents quickly and made it a snap to add clients. eRoom 5.0, which was released in December, supports Windows NT and Windows 2000 servers. (Clients can use other platforms with browsers.)

Both eRoom 5.0 and Team Center 4.0.3 excelled in real-time messaging and provided good overall contact between the server and clients. For example, both products used e-mail alerts to inform users about changes in a project.

Pricey interoperability

team center 4.0.3, which shipped last month, offered the best server interoperability of the three, but sites must pay for that versatility. Team Center is priced at $15,000 per server and $350 per user.

WebWorkZone, which came online in November, moves documents back and forth without stress on companies servers or platforms, no matter how many clients are exchanging information. We encountered slower response times with WebWorkZone than with its nonhosted competition but couldnt verify the cause.

WebWorkZone is priced at $14.95 per user per month for up to 10 users, or $12.00 per user per month for more than 10 users. Basic service includes 10MB of file storage per user plus free access to an online support forum. Dedicated servers and additional storage options are also available.

eRoom 5.0s strong administrative tools enabled us to create multiple project collaboration areas, or eRooms, and projects. We could restrict users access to only the eRoom projects to which they were assigned. Each users home page displayed his or her assigned project or projects, and the client interface was the same whether we used Microsoft Corp.s IE (Internet Explorer) 5.0 or Netscape Communications Corp.s Netscape 6.

eRoom also provides a free downloadable plug-in with extended capabilities. We found the offline eRoom editing feature most useful because it enables employees to work on projects while they are on the road without missing a beat. eRoom Technology also offers a hosted service through

Inovies pure Java-certified Team Center 4.0.3 runs on a variety of server platforms, including Windows NT and Windows 2000, Solaris, Linux, and Mac OS and integrates with Microsoft SQL and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol servers. (We tested it using a Windows 2000 server.) New features in Version 4.0.3 include support for browsers using HTML, JavaScript, Java applets, Java 1.17 or later, and IE 5.0 and later.

Team Centers messaging features performed well when we tested threads and chat capabilities, and we could notify users via e-mail of changes to project files and schedules. We liked the unique scheduler function, which automatically updated users when schedules changed, allowing projects to be managed at every stage of the project life cycle.

SiteScapes WebWorkZone provides users with hosted collaboration workplaces that can be reached via a Web browser, so there is no need for large server storage space. Its features are comparable to those of its sibling server product, SiteScape 5.1.

WebWorkZones GUI will be familiar to those using any browser and provides messaging, alerts to changes or updates in documents, an AltaVista Co. search engine, document sharing with revision control, and a Web file system to share documents from any location.

WebWorkZone provides fewer messaging tools than the other two wares we tested, and it seemed to take a little longer to perform basic functions. Because tasks are performed on the hosted server, WebWorkZone offers fewer security controls between users and documents.

SiteScape offers users a unique perspective. If current users use WebWorkZone but want to purchase SiteScape 5.0 or 5.1 and host collaboration on their own servers, all data that WebWorkZone has compiled from projects, including messages, can be transferred to a companys server environments. This enables organizations to better control the collaboration space.