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The New Breed of Team Software

Let’s consider a variety of software that typifies this "simple is better" approach to empowering teams. For each application, the goal is not only to allow you to collaborate online with your team, but to do it more simply, more effectively, and in a clear and collaborative way. Each application section includes a table summarizing features and so forth, so that you can compare apples to apples.

Basecamp

Created by 37signals, which makes a variety of other simple-purpose distributed-team applications, Basecamp was their first runaway hit. Basecamp’s founding premise is fairly simple: let teams set tasks and milestones, communicate, and subscribe to the project...oh, and let them try it out for free as well (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 Basecamp’s task-oriented nature allows teams to get up and running quickly.

Basecamp is strong on to-do list management, assignment, ordering, and milestones. A central calendar works well, while the messaging is simple and straightforward. In addition, staying up to date is as easy as subscribing to an RSS feed.

37signals’ motto is to keep it simple, and that’s just what Basecamp does. If all you need is the ability to manage what needs done and when, and a bit of a collaborative communication area to go along with it, Basecamp could be perfect for your company. No Gantt charts here. No progression or regression tracking. No document management (although you can upload files to share). No time and attendance. Just straight task management. Simple, effective, and very friendly.

Table 1 Basecamp

Main function

Managing tasks and milestones in a collaborative environment.

Cost

From free to $99/month. Free account is fully functional for one project and has no time limit.

Pros

The free account lets teams try out the software. The task and milestone management are second to none because they do an excellent job of getting out of the way. Fantastic interface.

Cons

File sharing can be awkward. No notification to task creator of task completion. "Extra features" simply don’t exist; if you want more features, you may need to sign up for other 37signals products.

Good for

Small groups that need a simple collaborative environment for working on projects and tasks, and need only a small number of communications tools to support the project.

Central Desktop

Isaac Garcia, Central Desktop’s CEO, is fond of saying that Central Desktop is "a wiki without the wiki," and this short description is surprisingly apt (see Figure 2). Central Desktop has all the strengths of a wiki (instant creation of pages, powerful search engine, easy tagging and sharing of information), without most of the technical gunk that so many non-technical people get lost in with wikis.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Central Desktop’s "workspaces" are a key tool in keeping your team on the same page.

Central Desktop is all about allowing your team to create a workspace that can have a team ready to work in just minutes. With a solid focus on not only tasks but milestones, files, and a central calendar, Central Desktop goes above and beyond what Basecamp offers. It suffers some in the simplicity department, but makes up for that lack by allowing you to create targeted workspaces. If you need an intranet, it will preconfigure the application for that type of collaborative work. If you need project management, to-do lists and milestones are more front and center.

In addition, Central Desktop offers a free account (not time-limited) so that users can simply try it out for a small project and see if it agrees with them.

Overall, the application isn’t as simple as Basecamp, but if you’re looking for those couple of extra features such as version tracking and regression management of files, this could be the right tool for you. Thankfully, both products’ free accounts let you dip your feet in the water to see what works!

Table 2 Central Desktop

Main function

Fully featured team and personal management system.

Cost

From free to $249/month. Free account is for two workspaces and five members, is fully functional, and has no time limit.

Pros

Simple interface with most of the tools an individual needs to manage his work and be a part of a team (messaging, tasks, notes, contacts, calendar, etc). This is a solid personal information manager, with great team tools and an interesting approach to document creation and management. Decent document management, with version tracking, is also included.

Cons

Lacks the simplicity of some of the competing tools. Sometimes tries to do too much at an "okay" level rather than excelling at just a few key areas. Overall, should help teams and individuals who are not on the same network (for example, with Exchange and Outlook) to work effectively.

Good for

Distributed teams who don’t share IT resources but need to share contacts, tasks, files, and still communicate (without the pain of email).

CalendarHub

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front: CalendarHub is completely free. CalendarHub attempts to take the desktop calendar metaphor and create it online (see Figure 3). In many ways, it succeeds fairly well, while also doing a good job of realizing that it isn’t the only calendaring application out there.

Figure 3

Figure 3 CalendarHub truly is a central place to manage all of your calendars.

In brief, CalendarHub allows you to create calendars. It then lets you add events and reminders (which can be sent to email, cell phone, or an RSS feed), share with friends, add local or company events, and a host of other little activities. One of the great tools is a desktop client that lets you view and manage your CalendarHub client. For people who are trying to sync their personal and professional calendars, CalendarHub can be a great go-between, importing or exporting from many major PIM clients such as Outlook, or it can act as your sole calendar manager.

In fact, one pleasant area of differentiation is that CalendarHub doesn’t act as an island unto itself. You can import and export data from a variety of services, subscribe to your calendar, and generally stay on top of what’s going on throughout your life via CalendarHub—effectively meaning that the product lives up to its name, which is never a bad thing.

CalendarHub’s Scott Mace believes one of the key features is what they call subscriptions. Subscriptions allow you to create a calendar from a set of different calendars. You can then layer these calendars on top of each other, filter, tag, search, and effectively create the view you need. "It lets you combine everything and then filter it as much as you want, depending on the information you’re looking for," says Mace.

Calendaring is a major growth area in online services. The expectation is that several new major calendar apps will be coming out in the next several months, including one from Google. So, while CalendarHub may not be exactly what you’re looking for, increased competition should enable you to find the right application for your team very soon. However, if "simple" is all you need, it would be hard to go wrong with this sweet little application.

Table 3 CalendarHub

Main function

Calendar creation and sharing.

Cost

Free.

Pros

Simple interface. Lets you "subscribe" to other calendars (team, project, public) and then filter events by date, type, tag, etc. Importing/exporting of data is very simple and well done.

Cons

No built-in messaging mechanisms (to schedule meetings, for example). Oddly, there are also missing time zones (nothing between Eastern and GMT).

Good for

Teams, companies, and individuals that need centralized calendars that can be synched.

Rallypoint

flip180’s Rallypoint is a new application (free for a basic account) that lets you create, organize, and share web-based documents. In many ways it acts and feels like a wiki (see Figure 4). A very fast, very well-organized, fully-featured wiki that is a great little, ahem, rallying point for your team...but still a wiki.

Figure 4

Figure 4 Rallypoint is just about the friendliest and easiest to use wiki-esque tool you’ll ever find.

Beyond the obvious tagging, inviting people, easy page creation, search, and notifications, there are few tools here to entice larger teams. However, I’m told that that’s sort of the point. Offering teams a simple way to create and manage collaborative documents, Rallypoint enables smaller teams to create things like product manuals, policy documents, meeting notes, client lists, and intranet pages quickly and efficiently.

For document creation and management, Rallypoint is very, very good. If your team doesn’t live on the same network and needs to create web-based documents effectively, this is quite a nice solution.

While I personally would want more features, for your team the focus on a solid document creation and sharing system may be absolutely perfect. Toss in the price (free) and the ability to create templates (memo, letter to client, proposal, etc.), and it’s a nifty little package in a pretty little ensemble.

And, hey, if everyone was like me, there would be no such thing as Dancing with the Stars! And that would be tragic. Absolutely tragic.

Table 4 Rallypoint

Main function

Create and manage centralized documents.

Cost

Free.

Pros

Simple interface. Advanced wiki-style functionality for creating and managing documents. Decent search capability. Nice ability to stay up to date on changes to documents in the workspace.

Cons

To non-wiki users, may seem daunting or "too empty," especially at first.

Good for

Small groups that need to create, edit, and manage documents in a central web-based location.

Remember The Milk

Remember The Milk is a nice (free) application that does just one thing: to-do lists (see Figure 5). The premise is simple. Sign up for an account (it took me 18 seconds). Add to-do items. If you want, provide some extra information: when the item is due, if it’s recurring, how long it will take. And, if you want, share your to-do items.

Yep, that’s it.

Figure 5

Figure 5 Remember The Milk is simple, easy to use, and clean!

However, its simplicity is its beauty. You can have your entire team up and put in all of your tasks in less than five minutes. The software is incredibly good at just getting out of the way. If all you want to do is enter the name of the task and hit Enter, well, by golly that’s all you have to do. Optional, in this case, really does mean optional. No big pop-up screens for you to enter data. No weird AJAX-y pop-ups. Just a little textbox with your task’s name in it.

Creating tasks is simple. Sharing them is simple. Tagging them is simple. Searching them is simple. Figuring out what you have to do each day is simple. Oh, and reminders (email, phone, mobile, AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber, etc.) are simple.

That "simple" motto we talked about earlier? Remember The Milk took it and ran with it.

If all you need is ultra-simple task management, this could be the perfect product for you and your team. Sure, there are other products. But c’mon, who doesn’t want to log into a site called Remember The Milk?

Table 5 Remember The Milk

Main function

Task creation and sharing.

Cost

Free.

Pros

Focused on task creation and management. Lets you get your tasks set up without any muss or fuss. Sharing of tasks is simple and intuitive. Reminders are very well done.

Cons

Focused on task creation and management. Once you get your tasks set up, you ask yourself, "Now what?"

Good for

Small groups that need to create and manage one-off and recurring tasks.

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