A Web-based solution for collaborative computing

Major high-end players such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange have traditionally dominated the collaborative processing market. As marketplace demands become more sophisticated, the need for easy-to-implement and easy-to-use collaborative products increases. This need is especially prevalent in the Internet environment, where you need light, browser-based software that anyone can easily understand and deploy. Although Exchange and Notes have moved into this area, they are still cumbersome to work with on the server side; implementing Exchange or Notes scripts that talk to browsers is no small feat.

Clearly the market is open to a product that is easy to deploy on both the server and browser side. Instinctive Technology has risen to this challenge with the release of its client/server collaborative solution: eRoom. The server side of eRoom is a series of Internet Information Server (IIS)-based routines (contained in DLL files) that provide a framework for collaborative processing. The client side of eRoom consists of ActiveX controls that interact with the server framework. Instinctive Technology provides NCompass' ScriptActive with eRoom to let Netscape Navigator users use the ActiveX controls.

An eRoom with a View
When you start using eRoom, you create a virtual room for each collaborative project you want to implement. You then place collaborative objects in a room to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas between the collaborative team members. Screen 1 shows a room containing the standard eRoom objects: My folder, My version organizer, My discussion area, My poll, and My note.

My folder gives you an area for storing files. (Folders in eRoom are similar to folders in Windows NT.) My version organizer lets you download and upload a file with version control to prevent overwriting existing versions. My discussion area provides a single-threaded discussion, similar to an online forum. My poll posts a question and then records and displays the participants and their responses. My note lets you post simple text messages for online reading.

You can place multiple copies of a type of object in a room. For example, you can have several polls or discussion objects. You can also embed files and Web links anywhere in your rooms.

The eRoom security system is flexible. For each collaborative project, you can add or delete project members at will and give them different authorizations. For example, you can specify whether project members must participate in the existing room framework or they can add and delete objects in the room. You can also give different authorizations to objects in the room. For example, you can specify whether an object has read-only access or project members can modify it.

In addition to being flexible, the eRoom security system is self-contained. You can view the fact that eRoom security is separate from NT security as a negative or positive attribute. The negative side is eRoom forces you to create definitions for users whom you've probably already defined in your NT domain user database. The positive side is you can let someone manage eRoom user definitions without giving that person full access to your NT domain database.

Building an eRoom
Installing eRoom is straightforward. First, you install the server-side routines. IIS must not be running during this phase. If IIS is running, the eRoom installation process asks you whether you want to shut it down. eRoom can shut down IIS for you. During installation, you define eRoom's global characteristics, assign an overall administrator, and allocate space for the client-side software. The setup program is easy to follow. At the conclusion of the installation, eRoom can restart IIS.

You create and administer rooms through a browser. Therefore, after installation, you must download the ActiveX controls for eRoom. You can copy these controls from the server you just configured, you can load them from the eRoom CD-ROM, or you can download them from Instinctive Technology's home page.

If you use Internet Explorer (IE) 3.0x or later, the ActiveX controls are all you need. If you use Navigator 3.0x or later, you must also load NCompass' ScriptActive plug-in to run ActiveX controls.

After you load the client-side software, you access a special URL that eRoom generates during the server installation process. You don't have to worry about forgetting this URL, because eRoom records it in an easily accessible file on the server. When your browser accesses the URL, you get a prompt to sign on. For this initial connection to the server, you sign on using the administrator definition you created.

As the eRoom administrator, you can create new rooms, define objects within the rooms, and define users to access the rooms. You can also assign room administrators (members who can control every object in the room). Creating a room and its collaborative objects is easy with this intuitive system.

Getting into an eRoom
One of eRoom's friendlier features is the way it invites new members into a room. When you create a new member, eRoom can send an email message to that user. The message contains all the information the member needs to gain entry to the room, including the room's URL, the member's name, the member's password, and information about where the member can download the client software. You can use eRoom's canned email message or you can generate your own.

As part of my review, I set up a room and blindly invited all the Windows NT Magazine Lab staff to join me. I didn't forewarn them or give them special instructions. I suspected this test would be interesting, because the Lab staff represents a mixture of skill sets: clerical, veteran techies, and up-and-coming techies.

I was disappointed with the results. Although all the users I invited made it (sooner or later) to the room, only one user did not have problems following the directions and signing on. I also discovered that the overhead of running eRoom from Navigator is very high. The ScriptActive module consumes disk space and CPU space. One of the Lab guys literally ran out of room on his laptop and couldn't get into the room until he upgraded his disk.

Although I can't fault eRoom for this Lab guy's computer habits, I can say that Instinctive Technology hasn't done a good job of documenting eRoom's client-side requirements. As a result, I can't recommend Navigator as a viable eRoom client. Even on a system with plenty of hard disk space and memory, the performance of accessing eRoom via Navigator is nowhere close to the performance of accessing eRoom with IE.

After you load all the software and you arrive in a room, interaction with the eRoom objects is similar to interaction with desktop objects. For example, you can cut, copy, and paste files between a room and your local system. When you invoke an interactive object (such as a discussion or a poll), the eRoom client pops up a dialog box for your data entry. For example, Screen 2, page 103, shows the dialog box for entering a comment into a discussion group.

Using local modules provides a better look and feel than using Web-based forms. When you combine this capability with eRoom's cut-and-paste support, you end up with a Web-based application that acts and feels like a native desktop application. Of course, the overall feel and performance of your eRoom interactions will depend on your client resources.

Should You Move into an eRoom?
On the whole, I'm impressed with eRoom. In addition to the core features I've described, eRoom is full of features that extend its usability. For example, you can place announcements in rooms to convey timely or important messages. Furthermore, the eRoom client includes a monitor module that provides a simple way to launch a connection into a room. And finally, eRoom can send email to a room's participants to inform them of activity in the room.

However, eRoom has limitations. The single-threaded discussion object is limiting, although you can work around this object to a certain extent with advance planning (e.g., you can create multiple discussion objects to relate to multiple threads). Similarly, eRoom needs better instructions to overcome the difficulty in having new users join a room. The only limitation I find unreasonable is the overhead that Navigator users experience; you need to use IE. Version 2.0 (now available) should address some of these concerns.

The benefits of eRoom clearly overshadow eRoom's limitations. This easy-to-implement and easy-to-use package provides a powerful collaborative computing environment. Best of all, eRoom doesn't cost anywhere close to what you might pay for an equivalent Exchange or Notes solution. You can even rent eRoom space through a special arrangement Instinctive Technology has made with Computer Associates. Given eRoom's cost-to-benefit ratio, you'll want to consider eRoom for any online collaborative effort.

eRoom 1.02
Contact: Instinctive Technology * 617-497-6300, Web: http://www.instinctive.com
Price: $645 (5 users)
System Requirements: Windows NT Server or Workstation 4.0 with SP2 or later, IIS 2.x or 3.x (NT Server), or Personal Web Server 2.x or 3.x (NT Workstation), 150MHz Pentium or better, 64MB of RAM, 200MB of hard disk space