Groove Virtual Office 3.0 redefines working in the virtual world

Model design lets users build and control shared workspaces without IT overhead

In large organizations it's common to find projects performed by people at widely separated locales. Unfortunately, in order for remote workers to share information, companies need to invest in expensive infrastructures and extensive alterations to enterprise groupware applications. Groove Virtual Office 3.0 sidesteps this costly customization. Out of the box, the solution helps users share documents, track issues, hold ad-hoc meetings, and access legacy-system data.

But my testing showed something larger: Groove Networks hasn't simply repackaged existing collaboration technology. The developers turned their obvious deep understanding of the virtual workplace into a solution that defines a new way of working. Here's just one small example: After I created a Groove-enabled folder on my desktop PC with critical documents, the information was automatically synchronized with my laptop when I connected at an off-site meeting. And this utility grows the more you use the software.

Right away, Virtual Office 3.0 is useful. The tabbed Groove Launchbar provides quick access to contacts and workspaces. In about 30 minutes I'd added contacts from Groove.net's public directory server and categorized them into different folders and groups.

Next, I created various workspaces, which are Groove's central containers for organizing tasks along with tools needed to accomplish them. This version includes 13 prebuilt templates, ranging from documentation review and virtual meetings to status reporting. Just pick a workspace design, invite users, and you're soon ready to interact with far-flung colleagues.

That a user can be productive without much training speaks to how well Groove Virtual Office's UI presents and integrates its many features. For instance, I extensively tested Document Workflow and Mobile Workspace for Microsoft SharePoint workspaces. In the first case, beyond being able to share files on my PC, the workspace included a discussion board, workflow, listing of members who were part of the workspace and their presence status, a chat window, and common tasks such as setting alerts.

Alerts are very helpful, especially if you're juggling multiple projects. After subscribing to various workspaces, I customized alarms, such as a spoken message that will sound when a document related to a top-priority job gets updated. This type of customization is easy to do. In one case I combined contacts and workspaces in a single Launchbar view, then dragged and combined items in the order I wanted.

The SharePoint workspace exercised yet another Groove 3.0 strength: Users have the ability to work offline. For example, normally you'd need a live connection to the portal to access remote documents. However, I easily added information from SharePoint to my Groove workspace. The result: I had local copies of critical documents at hand, even when I was not connected to any network -- and document changes were synchronized with the portal once I reconnected.

Additionally, many Groove 3.0 services are exposed to the Windows file system. As a result, users don't need to create a workspace or change their daily habits. From Windows Explorer I merely used the Folder Sync button to make folders available to others.

The aforementioned functions take fewer steps and work faster than Groove 2.5, but the Forms tool received special attention in this release and thus should be of interest to businesspeople. Nontechnical users, such as financial planners who know Microsoft Excel, can take a Groove Forms template and modify it with the built-in graphical designer. The finished form, which can give an executive overview of sales figures, is then added to a workspace. I also successfully tried some of the tools for developing more advanced forms, which let me employ JavaScript to combine data from several Microsoft Access databases and present summary results in one concise form.

On the back end, I saw notable changes to

Groove 3.0's Enterprise Management Server, the component that handles authentication, synchronization, and so on; it is setup in-house or used as a hosted service. Installed behind the firewall, the server integrates with LDAP or Active Directory servers, which makes large-scale deployments easier, ensures proper identity management, and enforces security. Equally important is the centralized archiving, such as capturing discussions and chat, that is crucial for compliance audits.

I don't know of any product that currently tops Groove 3.0's usability and breadth -- though there are competitors that offer pieces, such as Documentum eRoom, or online services such as Intranets.com. It would be nice for users to be able to communicate with those who don't subscribe to the service and the search function could do a better job. Still, these are minor complaints.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Setup (20.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (10.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Integration (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Groove Virtual Office 3.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.6
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