Product Reviews

Get Your Groove On

Remote collaboration moves forward with Groove Virtual Office's many workflow tools.

The world of work has changed dramatically. Different people from different groups in different companies work together on projects from just about anywhere. Telecommuters work from home almost as easily as they do in the office. Traveling executives have virtually the same access to their data on the road as in the office. The Internet is the key to this brave new world. It's inexpensive, it's widely available and finally -- it's relatively fast.

While the concept of working anywhere continues to expand, the main problem is shared resources. For remote workers, common office infrastructure is absent -- the tangible aspects like file servers and conference rooms and the intangibles like water cooler conversations and drive-by decisions. Without these elements, remote collaboration can be difficult. You may find yourself setting up your own FTP servers, looking at free teleconferencing services and so forth.

It's especially tough for people from different organizations working on the same project, or independent contractors and freelancers with no shared infrastructure in the first place. I've just started writing an advanced scripting book with another independent consultant like me. We needed a way to pass files back and forth, leave one another notes, organize sample scripts and other tasks related to the project. That's easy enough to do in an office, but it can be tough when you're separated by an entire continent. Groove helped us work "together" across miles and time zones

Groovy Baby
Enter Groove Virtual Office. Groove is an Internet-based service providing version-controlled file sharing, message boards, online meeting space and instant messaging, among other things. It is built to make online collaboration easier and more efficient -- duplicating what you can do in a physical office environment to the greatest possible extent.

There are several editions of Groove Virtual Office -- File Sharing, Professional and Project. Besides file sharing, the File Sharing Edition provides discussion boards, a shared calendar, sketchpad, notepad and offline folder synchronization. The Professional edition adds basic task management, Microsoft SharePoint integration, custom forms creation for collecting data, document review workflows and virtual meetings. The Project edition finishes off with a Microsoft Project-like graphical project timeline, dashboards, Microsoft Project integration, resource allocation and some other project management functions. There's also a Trial Edition that offers a limited feature set for 60 days.

Installing Groove 3.1 is straightforward and only takes a few minutes. If you have an activation key for a fully licensed edition, you can apply it right after installation. You'll be prompted to establish a Groove account, which you can set up to work from multiple computers. This means you can use Groove to access your workspace from your work laptop and home desktop computer, for example.

You start using Groove Virtual Office by creating a new Workspace (unless you're joining a Workspace someone else has already created). For a file-sharing workspace, Groove will create a corresponding folder on your local computer (or let you choose an existing folder). This is where Groove synchronizes Workspace files with your local computer for offline use.

The Workspace is the basis for Groove's operations. You can send messages to other Workspace members, invite other Groove users into your Workspace, add other computers to the Workspace and so on (see Figure 1). Right now, you can send Groove invitations via e-mail or AOL Instant Messenger. With Microsoft's recent acquisition of Groove Networks, I expect Windows Messenger or MSN Messenger will be added in the near future.

Figure 1. Groove Workspace.
Figure 1. From the Groove Workspace, you can invite other users to work in your space. (Click image to view larger version.)

Integrating Groove with Microsoft Office or any other application is a no-brainer. Simply open the Workspace-related folder on your local computer. Then you can create new files, open and edit existing ones, and whatever else you need to do. Groove will automatically synchronize any changes back to the Workspace, so it works without any annoying Office add-ins.

REDMOND RATING
Documentation 20%
9
Installation 20%
9
Feature Set 40%
8
Performance 20%
9
Overall Rating:
8.6

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Key:
1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

You can configure Groove to display a Messenger-like alert whenever any changes occur in the Workspace, which helps you keep on top of project changes. Groove can also assign roles for participants—such as Manager, Participant and Guest—to which you can set Workspace permissions. This means you can let Workspace members view certain documents, for example, but not make any changes or revisions.

Ready, Set, Interact
There are a number of services that provide file sharing capabilities like Groove. What makes Groove unique is its built-in interaction capabilities. Groove provides discussion board messaging, which allows complex text conversations between people or groups within a Workspace. Participants can use both text and audio chat capabilities for instant interaction and even save a transcript of text chats for archival purposes. The Discussion feature integrated with Microsoft Outlook lets you use one or more existing e-mail messages as a starting point for a Groove-based discussion.

Groove has a shared Sketchpad feature, which works like an online whiteboard. This lets you share simple graphic concepts with other Workspace members. You can also set up your Workspace to have shared contact lists (you can even import contacts from Outlook) and a shared calendar. It also provides built-in instant messaging.

The document-review workflow is helpful. Simply right-clicking a document you've added lets you review that document. You can also specify other reviewers from the list of Workspace members. Reviewers are notified via a Groove message. They can then look at the document, mark it up, make comments and ultimately approve it.

Through integration with Microsoft SharePoint, a Groove Workspace can become a Groove "Mobile Workspace for SharePoint," where the Workspace data is synchronized to a SharePoint site. This essentially uses Groove to Internet-enable SharePoint. It extends the reach of what has typically been an intranet-only SharePoint site to Workspace members, who may not otherwise have access to that intranet. Groove even supports SharePoint's embedded Microsoft InfoPath forms through Groove's own form-builder and form-filler features. This lets you use Workspaces as data collection tools.

Groove a la Carte

You can get as much Groove as you need. Besides the Client Editions which cost anywhere from $69 to $229 per user, there are several server products as well. Here's a look at the complete pricing schema:

  • Enterprise Management Server: $23,995
  • Enterprise Relay Server: $14,995
  • Enterprise Auditing Service for the Management Server: $4,995, plus $49 per user per year Service Access License
  • Enterprise Backup Service: $9,995, plus $19 per user per year Service Access License
  • Enterprise Data Bridge: $9,995
  • Enterprise Data Bridge for CASAHL ecKnowledge: $24,995, plus $25 per user per year Service Access License
  • Enterprise XMPP Proxy: $19,995

Groove also provides hosted services. Hosted Relay Services are $40 per user, per year, and Hosted Relay and Management Services

Another major aspect of Groove is its online meeting management. You can use it to create meeting agendas, action items, and record meeting minutes. You can also publish meetings to Workspace members' Outlook schedules and use Microsoft NetMeeting to actually hold the meeting. Another result of Microsoft's recent acquisition of Groove will most likely be some sort of Microsoft LiveMeeting integration.

Note that Groove doesn't actually provide the infrastructure to hold the meeting—;apart from launching NetMeeting. It doesn't provide conference-calling, video or similar features. The meeting tools help you organize meetings and record minutes. They also help you make those elements (agenda, action items, and so on) available to other Workspace members.

Get into the Groove
If you're working with a geographically dispersed team and don't have Microsoft SharePoint Server—which provides many of the same features as Groove to an intranet environment—then using Groove is an excellent way to bring all your project files, contacts, schedules, and other data into a single, shared workspace.

The tool's straightforward user interface makes it easy to use, and its configurable alerts help ensure that everyone is kept informed and actively participating at all times. Groove's core file-sharing and review-workflow functionality is extremely valuable. Coupling that with meeting organization tools, discussion boards, instant messaging, and basic chat features helps provide a reasonable facsimile of the interaction you'd get in a physical office. For the price (much less than building a branch office), Groove bundles a lot of functionality into one well-integrated product.

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