NextPage solves document-management dilemma

Quietly efficient NextPage 1.5 slips document management into everyday routines

Software developers have used version-control apps for decades to manage changes to documents and track who’s got the latest copy. Business users have had access to document-control systems, too, but these systems haven’t caught on. That may be because the typical document-management system is a centralized application run by the IT department, and using it involves changing how you work.

NextPage 1.5 suffers from neither of these restrictions. It’s installed on the user’s machine and works in the background to track document versions and who’s got what. This is a document-management product that returns impressive benefits without requiring a lot of discipline or thought from its users.

Controlling the Flow

NextPage 1.5 is more a service than an application, so there’s nothing to launch. To get information for documents not on your machine, the client communicates with a central server run by NextPage. Indeed, after you’ve loaded the small app on your computer, you may wonder if it’s working, because it sits quietly in the background as it tracks your documents. The system runs as easily across corporate boundaries as it does inside the organization.

I set out to test NextPage 1.5’s operation by installing it on two machines running Windows XP SP2. One ran Office 2002; the other, Office 2003. A third machine, my PowerBook running OS X, tested how NextPage handles tracking when documents get sent to machines without NextPage installed. I used a separate e-mail address on each machine to simulate three different users.

Because it’s integrated into Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, NextPage starts tracking a file as soon as you save it. I found that although NextPage 1.5 does fine with Excel and PowerPoint, the feature set is most fully developed with Word documents.

NextPage discovered that most people distribute documents in one of two ways and built its management modes accordingly. The mode you’re in controls which version of the document is the “master” and which versions are “alternates.”

In the first mode, called “turn taking,” the author doesn’t control who creates the next authoritative version. Changes are made to the document as it’s passed along; when you start editing a document, NextPage warns you if it’s not the latest copy.

In the second mode, which NextPage calls the “quarterback model,” the document is created by one person (the quarterback), who sends it out for editing. Changes are returned to the quarterback, who merges the changes back into the master document.

Some of these concepts can be unfamiliar at first, especially because version control isn’t a common process for many business users. You’ll need to make sure all users understand the two document models if you want to get the most from NextPage 1.5.

I tested both models by creating a document on one of my machines and e-mailing it to the others. As I changed the document on machines with the NextPage client installed, they notified the originating machine that newer versions existed, as well as who had them. The version history graphically displayed who had the documents and how the documents were related.

In quarterback mode, the system doesn’t tell you as much information about alternative versions of the document, because you retain control. As changes to the original document come back, they’re placed on the To-Do List, which tracks changes to be incorporated back into the master. Word’s Merge tool works great for this, or you can do it by hand.

In Word 2003, NextPage 1.5 automatically recognizes when you’ve used the Merge tool and takes the task off the To-Do list; otherwise, you have to remove it manually. Once the task is removed, the version history shows the alternatives that have been incorporated into the master.

Identity Is the Key

NextPage 1.5 performs its magic by creating a unique identity for every document and placing that identity in the document’s metadata. It shares that identity with a central server, so two versions of a document on different machines can be related to each other, even if the name has changed.

NextPage assures me that the central server identity data doesn’t contain any information from the document that you would want to keep private; the server simply stores an opaque trail of relationships. The document is the key that’s used to reconstruct the relationships: no document, no information.

Because of the central server, NextPage can serve non-NextPage users, too. NextPage 1.5 gives you the option of including an e-mail document signature, which would include a URL pointing to the document’s homepage on the NextPage server. The homepage provides the current status of the document, including whether it’s the most recent copy.

This Web page service portends some interesting possibilities for Web services. For example, some companies might want to audit where certain documents are for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. NextPage servers could easily return that information as a Web service.

Aside from users’ potential unfamiliarity with NextPage’s document-ownership concepts, my chief complaint is that there are too many places to get information in NextPage 1.5. In addition to the NextPage toolbar in Word, there’s a new menu item in Office documents and an icon in the task bar. And if you right-click any document NextPage is tracking in the file explorer, yet another menu appears.

If these were just different places for the same information, it wouldn’t be so bad, but each menu is slightly different. It left me wondering which one I should use to get the information I needed.

Nevertheless, NextPage 1.5 is so easy to use that there’s really no more excuse for not managing documents at your organization. If you’re a CFO worried about Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, or just a project manager trying to get a handle on who’s got what, this product will solve your problems.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Integration (20.0%)
Implementation (20.0%)
Security (10.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
NextPage 1.5 8.0 7.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.4