SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - There is no shortage of ASPs (application service providers) offering space on their servers to store your documents and files.
But very few of these services give businesses a compelling reason to subscribe. For example, users are unable to see what documents other team members are using in real time, which often results in duplicate work.
X-Collaboration Software Corp.'s Web-based service, X-Collaboration.com, helped reduce these extra efforts by storing shared files on a community whiteboard, which allowed team members to immediately see which files are active. The company's upgrade to the X-Collaboration.com service, X-Community.com 2.0, improves workflow features. Furthermore, it introduces a new user interface, a skills directory for project leaders, and 10MB of personal storage for each user.
X-Community.com combines basic project management functions with document version tracking and control features, allowing workgroups to quickly and easily plan and organize collaborative projects and track their progress. The result is a very good solution for dispersed workgroups collaborating on business proposals, contracts, and other document-centric projects.
I found that X-Community.com lived up to its billing as easy to use. In about 10 minutes, I'd established my account, logged in, downloaded the Java client, and was ready to work in my workgroup's private Business Center. Next, I created log-ins for several team members. Finally, I quickly added workspaces to our Business Center for several projects.
To begin mapping out a project, I used X-Community.com's whiteboards. By dragging and rearranging electronic notecards on the canvas, I defined my project's workflow. Notecards function like tasks in a project management program (you can arrange them roughly in a time line), but they can hold any type of document you drag on to them: word processing files, spreadsheets, presentations, and live Web pages. The few glitches I experienced were minimal; for example, the beta X-Community client wouldn't let me rename a notecard.
Most significantly, notecard content is immediately available to other project participants. A colleague had no trouble launching Microsoft Word documents and similar desktop files directly from a notecard. When a document is in use, X-Community.com allows other users to view it but prevents them from making changes. I also appreciated the software's version tracking, which let me roll back to any past update and make it the working document.
X-Community.com makes it easy for managers to assign jobs to individuals and impose deadlines. After I made assignments using a simple form, team members were alerted to their new assignments via e-mail. They also saw their task lists when logging on and could update how much of their work was complete.
For communicating among the team, I attached comments to notecards. If you want to make absolutely sure that remarks are read, this information can also be e-mailed to the group.
Another important facet of collaboration is quickly locating reference files or documents. Here, too, this service did the job very well, allowing me to assign custom tags to notecards to facilitate searches and to search across multiple workspaces using advanced Boolean search criteria.
Each team member has a personal page that lists skills and similar data. This should help managers who need to assemble ad hoc teams quickly find workers with the appropriate experience.
Besides the whiteboards, X-Community.com gives each user a virtual hard disk for storing personal files. These drives can also be shared. I found it easy to upload files to my Web drive and add appropriate security.
For project owners, administrating X-Community.com is just as straightforward.
I added members and groups, set access rights, and archived projects once they were finished -- all without having to refer to any documentation.
There are some features I'd like to see -- which competitors such as HotOffice Technologies' Hot Office and Instinctive Technology's eRoom have -- including group calendar and chat.
On the other hand, thanks to its XML architecture, X-Community.com handles more file types, including CAD drawings, than eRoom and other products, which are limited to Microsoft Office files. Furthermore, X-Community.com gave me no problems when working through corporate firewalls. For any workgroup charged with collaborating on complex documents, this neatly packaged solution deserves serious consideration.
Mike Heck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor at InfoWorld and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp., in Blue Bell, Pa.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
Business Case: This low-cost service can help dispersed workgroups complete business proposals, contracts, and other document-centric projects on time. It requires little training of users and minimal support from IT.
Technology Case: X-Community.com combines Web-hosting services, including virtual drive space, with document management and basic project tracking functions.
+ Works with Microsoft Office 2000 and other XML-enabled desktop products+ Provides 128-bit SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security+ Offers fast data transfer+ Gives administrators extensive access controlCons:
- Lacks chat and group scheduling functionsCost: Approximately $10 per month per user; yearly and quantity discounts available (for example, $5,400/year for 50 users)Platform(s): Microsoft Windows 95/98/2000, Windows NT 4.0X-Collaboration Software Corp.; Boston; (617) 423-7799; www.x-community.com.