Low-cost, cross-platform Web software lets small groups collaborate securely through blogs, wikis and group scheduling.

May 17, 2006

5 Min Read
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Near-Time has transformed its collaboration products, Current and Flow, from Mac OS X-only desktop apps into a hosted, cross-platform Web offering called

The product lets small groups host shared files, maintain documentation and distribute information. It's not the most feature-rich wiki collaboration platform--that honor still goes to Atlassian Software Systems' Confluence, which we recently tested (see "Wikis in the Enterprise").In particular, it lacks strong user access control capabilities. But its low price may tempt smaller organizations and departments that want to test the wiki waters without busting their budgets or going without tech support, as they would have to with an open-source Wiki. They can run a pilot program with little investment risk, and better access control should be available by the time they're ready to deploy.

Why Wiki?

Wikis are different from the big collaboration gorilla on the market, Microsoft Office SharePoint. Wikis are designed to be simple to use, allow the cross-reference of topics, and share control of the Web site across all users. SharePoint is designed for discussion forums, polls, portals, sharing Office documents, and offering more structure and control. won't provide Web conferencing and real-time communications, but as a group Weblog with wiki pages, team events, and shared files, it will trump e-mail as a collaboration tool

In some respects, it can't hold a candle to some other wiki collaboration tools. Access control, for example, is limited, with no ability to restrict page modification to certain users and no LDAP integration. That's particularly troublesome for deployment within larger groups or across an enterprise, where it's desirable to have more control over access.Atlassian's wiki, for example, allows for access control on each page. However, we haven't tested a corporate wiki that had full LDAP integration and we've found significantly more-expensive wikis that are lacking in this respect. CustomerVision Enterprise Wiki, for example, has a hosted solution that costs $30,000 per year for 100 users. That's nearly 15 times as much as the most-expensive Near-Time plan.

Near-Time test screen

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If Near-Time added better access control and user-account creation, it would push up to an enterprise-class product. In its current state, it's more suitable for smaller groups where you'd easily detect an unfamiliar name in a posting.

Indeed, Near-Time's user invitation process makes it clear the vendor is targeting small businesses and departmental workers in this release. Users are invited to contribute content to a wiki space by e-mail only. An account is created when the user follows the signup directions in the e-mail.

Any user can send a signup invite, though an admin can always deactivate an account. If a company opts for Near-Time's "Pro" class plan or better, admins can restrict other members from sending invites.Components has four major areas: news, pages, events and files. The news page is a group blog and wiki wrapped into one, enabling any user on the system to modify a blog entry. Pages consists of all the wiki entries, limited by category or by tag (meta-data chosen by the author) if desired.

Users can leave comments attached to each page entry, a superior approach to the "Talk page" used on Wikipedia, because users don't have to leave a page to see the discussion around it. Only the original poster can edit comments.

Collaboration Comparison Click to enlarge in another window

Calendaring in wiki solutions is not yet a universal feature, so it's a plus that Near-Time offers one. Still, the group calendar is a bit primitive. Users set an event name, location, description, and start and end time. Other wiki engines, such as JotSpot Wiki, let you define repeat events. Also, the calendar doesn't integrate with the news or wiki pages.Files are attached to individual pages, and inherit the categorization of the attached page. One nice feature is the ability to check a file in or out.

Pricing Plus

Perhaps its best feature is its competitive and low-cost pricing--from $49.95 to $1,999.95 per year-- depending on features, storage space and data transfer usage. Data usage is centered on hosted file downloads, not page views, and administrators are alerted when the data transfer quotas are nearly met.

The most-expensive plan gives you 5 GB of online storage and 25 GB of monthly data transfer, though custom higher configurations can be crafted. We believe most businesses will want the Pro plan, which costs $249.95 a year with 500 MB storage and 5-GB data transfers. This plan is the cheapest that includes managed invitations and data encryption features.

All plans offer an unlimited number of users, compared with other hosted wikis, such as SocialText, which charge on a per-user basis. Of course, more users will usually require higher-bandwidth quotas and storage space. With support for unlimited users and pages, Near-Time is a good choice for smaller organizations, especially if you don't use the online storage space too frequently.Michael J. DeMaria is a technology editor based at Network Computing's Syracuse University's Real-World Labs®. Write to him at [email protected]. .

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