Product review: Web-based eRoom fosters teamwork

The Internet has spawned many applications; e-mail, groupware and threaded discussion groups, for example. But none of these really address an important tenet of business: the project. Moreover, these days many projects are fast-cycle and accomplished by ad hoc teams. So traditional project management software -- software that relies on a set of defined steps and known deadlines -- is of little value.

Version 4.0 of Instinctive's eRoom is designed to help groups of as many as 20 people to work together on projects that are less predictable and open-ended. It achieves this by providing a server-based virtual place where people can go to discuss ideas, share documents and reach a consensus. In the end, users no longer have to worry about communication problems, such as e-mail messages that people miss or delete, or different versions of the same document residing on each user's system.

The early beta version I evaluated overcomes several shortcomings of the previous version by offering a thin-client mode, which lets team members access eRooms with a browser running on various platforms. Administering eRoom is also now possible through a browser. Besides helping to reduce overall deployment costs, eRoom's more open architecture means fewer configuration and training problems for IT departments, as there is no extra client software to worry about. Additionally, eRoom promises better integration with complementary software, including Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office 2000.

Since eRoom 1.0 shipped in late 1997, two other products entered this project collaboration category: OpenText Livelink and Lotus QuickPlace. However, neither offers all the tools found in eRoom. Livelink primarily acts as a front end to an enterprise data repository, and QuickPlace -- which several ISPs will offer and which will be available as a stand-alone product to small and midsize companies -- has more of a consumer focus. eRoom should remain near the top of the list for decision makers considering team-focused solutions for the enterprise.

Several promised functions were missing in the prerelease of eRoom 4.0. For example, in the thin-client mode I could not perform full-text searches, track document versions, or copy files from one room to another. Yet I found that many new functions were complete in the prerelease; for example, all the administration can now be done through a Web interface. I simply logged on to the Admin Web page and set passwords, made new eRooms, established disk space limits, and added new members.

Moreover, the functional parts of the thin-client mode, which I tested using Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.5 on a Macintosh and Netscape Navigator 4.0.5 on a Linux system, appeared almost identical to the original Java application. This positive development increased performance while preserving important functions. In the browser, users will see a toolbar at the top of the display, a shortcut bar at the left, and an item box in the center. I uploaded a Microsoft Word file simply by clicking the Create button on the toolbar. Similarly, I reserved a file for editing and then saved it to my desktop to make revisions. This version control is an essential part of eRoom, and I was very pleased with how well it worked using a browser.

For Windows users upgrading to Microsoft Office 2000, eRoom's browser mode will more closely resemble the Java-enhanced mode. Using the final version of Office 2000 and Internet Explorer 5, I edited and saved Microsoft PowerPoint files from an eRoom without performing the download step. Therefore, updating files centrally stored in an eRoom takes very little work, which is key when asking people who are already pressed for time to adopt new software.

The updated 12Mbyte Java client showed a few improvements. The enhanced search feature now checks the full text of documents and custom fields. Moreover, the rich-text editor offers a spelling checker. However, Send to Library, which connects eRoom to external applications, such as Lotus Notes, did not work. Company representatives said this would be functional in the final release, and that eRoom would also have a connector to Microsoft Exchange public folders.eRoom: the better choiceAlthough it is clearly not ready for release, eRoom 4.0 addresses the gaps in the current software. If the thin-client mode works as intended, then there will be little reason to look elsewhere to bring together fragmented information and people in diverse locations.

(Mike Heck (mike_heck@infoworld.com) is a contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.)The bottom line:eRoom 4.0, betaSummary: eRoom is one of the top project-collaboration products because it enables those in dispersed locations to easily share information and thoughts about fast-cycle projects. Other packages have emerged in this category, but eRoom provides the most features.

Business Case: Because this software is self-administered, it reduces IT manager efforts; no infrastructure changes or additional client software should be necessary.

Pros

+ Simple to create and access work areas+ Collaborative functions+ Document version control+ Web-based administrative tools+ Browser or Java-application accessCons- Beta does not connect to other applications, such as Lotus NotesShip date: This month.

Cost: Server: $US9995; clients: $US199

Platforms: Server: Windows NT 4.0 with Internet Information Server 4.0 or Personal Web Server. Client: Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows NT 4.0; Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator 3.0 or later.

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