52 Comments

Summary:

Collaboration — both with staff on the inside and advisers from the outside — is a vital part of any successful organization. Given that so much of our communication is done electronically, much of our collaboration is, too. But good luck finding a truly effective set of electronic collaboration tools.

It’s a new year and like many companies, we here at Panorama Capital are trying to figure out how to better use our time and resources. One key area of interest for us is to increase our collaboration with our networks of advisers. Like most venture capital shops, we have formalized advisory boards that help us conduct due diligence on technology and markets. In addition to meeting with these advisers in person on a regular basis, we communicate with them electronically using mailing lists. And while we find mailing lists useful for disseminating information, as a collaboration tool we find them inadequate.

We use Google Groups as a listserv to archive our mailing list threads, but that really doesn’t provide a good collaboration environment. One common complaint we hear is that searching the mailing list archive is tedious and produces lots of non-relevant data -– an experience most of us can relate to, especially when searching a public forum or email archive. Given that we want to be a helpful resource for our advisers and encourage them to collaborate with us on a regular basis, providing inadequate tools is far from ideal.

What we would like to find is a set of collaboration tools that will allow us to build a knowledge base that is useful for both our internal diligence and our network of advisers. Ideally, the tool would take our mailing list traffic, automatically organize and tag it, and then allow context-based searches. Other desired features would involve both propagating popular information up and down the knowledge base and allowing members to rate it (perhaps in a Digg-like fashion).

I’ve looked at numerous solutions already. Being a reformed software engineer and open source advocate, I started with phpBB, but its implementation required more time and effort than I was willing to invest. I thought of building our own social network with Ning, but that didn’t seem to have the right tools to increase collaboration. On a friend’s referral, I then looked into Clearspace from Jive Software, only to realize that while this enterprise-class software could do what we want, it has more horsepower than we need and requires more system administration than we can support (see Anne’s previous coverage of Jive).

Since we all use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook (along with a Blackberry, part of the standard venture capital package, I’m afraid), I did poke around Sharepoint a bit, but this software seems focused on document collaboration. I even played around with GroupSwim , a company providing on-demand community collaboration software that looks very promising. Like Jive’s Clearspace, they offer the automatic tagging, search and knowledge base archives that we are looking for while maintaining email as the primary communication mechanism. I am hopeful our advisers can eventually start to use the web to collaborate vs. email, but I am not holding my breath.

How are you are using collaboration tools, either within your organization or between your organization and community? What works best — and what has been a disappointment?

  1. You might check out the socialtext wiki (disclaimer, I work there but not in sales).
    We have pretty cool mail archiving, and the ability to tag and comment on it through the wiki ui, and a nice API to automate things.
    We have a bunch of other collaborative space tooling, RSS watch lists etc. We have a sharepoint module to if you decide you do want that document archiving (can be done in the wiki of course but we don’t have the versioning controls and check out stuff).
    We have a open source version, hosted and we sell an appliance. There is a lot of competition in the space but we are pretty good about listening to a full set of business needs and selling (with training) a set of solutions.
    Anyway sounds like ti might be worth your time to hear the full pitch :).

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  2. Check out Mindtouch Deki Wiki. I’ve been playing with it and shows a lot of promise as a next-generation wiki. Also check out the Outlook connector (still in alpha).

    http://wiki.mindtouch.com/Deki_Wiki

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  3. Definitely look into CentralDesktop. I used it last year and it was really helpful. It provided printable status reports for my team, message boards, task lists and milestones, etc.
    http://www.centraldesktop.com

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  4. Basecamp (project management) and Highrise (contact management) from 37Signals are both superb.

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  5. New take on the problem. You may want to consider looking at Twine for your issues which is set to launch soon from Radar Networks. I’ve been an alpha tester and believe it has some really interesting methods of knowledge basing and collaboration/commenting with both private/public capability. The big piece is that it uses semantic principles which helps with classification and tagging.

    http://www.twine.com

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  6. One word: activeCollab. Simple, elegant and beautiful.

    http://www.activecollab.com

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  7. I have a similar problem – I need a lightweight knowledge management system (we currently use a the raw windows folder file tree in a shared drive) and an external collaboration tool for advisers and volunteers. The missing piece is a business process management. The question is how do you move a deal from a prospect to an initial meeting, to a term sheet negotiation to the due diligence stage – and then how do you manage the deals once they are in your portfolio?

    A couple of local companies are working on parts of this issue. http://www.openteams.com is the best and most appropriate with its structured wiki format and extraordinary design. http://www.dealbench.com comes out of the corporate M&A world and is more focused on the document workflow.

    We use http://www.angelsoft.net for our Angel investment group (www.houstonangelnetwork.org) and it is somewhat helpful.

    I’m very curious to see what other companies come up in this thread because I believe that there are hundreds of small office private equity, VC and professional investment firms that could use a hosted, yet private solution.

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  8. Go look at Central Desktop. We use it to manage a standards group with about 50 people all from different organizations.

    They make heavy use of email so most of the people still use email to stay up to date, yet evrything is archived, tagged and searchable for future retrieval. Essentially google groups on steriods.

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  9. My company(55 people) has been using Groupswim for about 2 months and it does a great job with auto tagging and most of the functionality you mention. They just added ‘email in’ which is a great feature, but combined with auto tags make it a killer feature.

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  10. I’ve looked into a variety of tools for my organizations as well. They have been using Yahoo and Google groups but are looking to switch to tools with more functionality that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Each of my them use at least 10 groups on Yahoo/Google for various committees and member-types. The most pressing problems we’ve seen is low member involvement and difficulty in keeping content up to date.

    For a while, I’ve worked on getting a web application built, which is now becoming publicly available (Convos.com). It would help my organizations create and manage all of the groups they need (committees, teams, boards, etc) and provide them with email listservs and intranet-like features. From my perspective, this is a structural and organizational layer on top of email, which we will utilize more so that messaging becomes smarter and more useful.

    Here are other tools, we’ve looked at:

    MS SharePoint Server – too much configuration and administrative work.
    AirSet – A good amount of functionality, but poor navigation/usability
    Custom CMS (Drupal, Xoops, DotNetNuke, PhpNuke) – very flexible systems but require know-how to implement and configure.
    WebOffice
    eRoom
    Groove Networks
    CommunityZero
    BaseCamp

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  11. Please check out product at http://www.cognopolis.com. We released it just several weeks ago and we keep adding new features. It is an Enterprise grade, ready-to-use, hosted Web 2.0 solution for collaborative knowledge and content management, creating an instant online presence and building interest-based communities. The tools which are currently released include knowledge base, messaging, events calendar, blogs, forums, news management, downloads, FAQ, galleries and we are just about to release a complete site/page builder for static content. Coming soon – tools for video management, profile directories, surveys, polls, newsletters, banner management. Individual modules can be turned off if not needed. Each site comes with functionality as tunable full text search, tagging, rating, RSS feeds, commenting, full administration allowing for very flexible setting of user privileges and content visibility. The solution has been built based on the latest web technologies and is hosted in one of the best datacenters in North America. We have variety of subscription plans, including a free one.

    We are eager to get more feedback from our potential users. Our main targeted audience is businesses and organizations which want to increase their customers / members engagements or to receive an instant online presence, as well as interest or knowledge based groups and communities.

    We will very much appreciate if you explore it and give us your feedback. An example of a cognopolis site is the cognopolis support site at http://cognopolis.cognopolis.com.

    Contact me if you need any additional information: schankov@archiprise.com

    Svet Chankov
    Chief Solutions Architect at Archiprise Inc. – the company that built http://www.cognopolis.com

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  12. Allan, I’ve used 80% of the tools mentioned above, and although they all have they’re weaknesses, they all serve a different purpose.

    Wiki (Confluence/SocialText) = Living Documents
    Basecamp/Central Desktop = Project Mgmt’ish
    eRoom/Sharepoint, etc = Collaboration

    Your needs sound like a mix of a few of these – and potentially a strong search platform (I’m loving Vivisimo lately: http://www.vivisimo.com) on top of them.

    No silver bullets here :P

    I’m personally excited about a project I’m working on to develop an “Enterprise” version of the Facebook News Feed.

    Let us know what you settle on, I’m curious.

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  13. web 2 will bring everything online i.e. OS will just reduced to boot program!

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  14. Thanks Allan for the mention. If you want to check out GroupSwim, we have a free trial and it only takes a few minutes to get started. We support both public and private communities. We released our beta about four months ago and it’s been very well received.

    As a note: we have spent a lot of time adding semantic methods to our tagging and content organization capabilities. This provides superior tagging and content classification capabilities and makes GroupSwim ideal for building a knowledge base. For internal corporate communities we recently added the ability to “email in” to the community where new content automatically gets tagged and organized. It has really improved participation and keeps the content fresh. Check it out, and let us know what you think.

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  15. Thanks folks for the suggestions! Other than GroupSwim and Central Desktop do the other tools have email archiving as well? We tend to use email to communicate with our advisors a lot – it’s hard to get these busy folks to come to visit a website periodically.

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  16. “Other desired features would involve both propagating popular information up and down the knowledge base and allowing members to rate it” :-) Consider http://www.nextbestaction.com

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  17. wendell hamilton Saturday, January 19, 2008

    You may want to look at Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5. It’s a mail server, with wiki and document management built-in.

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  18. You might want to look at Nexo.com.

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  19. For the last few months, we’ve been using a tool by Agile Partners (http://agilepartners.com/) called Morning Tea. MT has many of the features you are looking for (tagging, wikis, collaboration, etc) and brings it all together into a very inviting interface. As many of the posts above point out, there’s no silver bullet but I’ve worked with Agile in the past and I’m very confident of their abilities to grow this package to meet our firms specific needs.

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  20. We have many different organizations using our hosted services for their collaboration with internal staff and external entities.

    There is a free trial available and I’d happily talk you through some ways that you might address your archiving and e-mail issues.

    There is a cst involved – this is not a free application. But if you want serious collaboration support then come to our site – our services are based on the original mature IBM/Lotus offering.

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  21. The point about different tools for different purposes made by Dan Martell is right on the mark. Key is your need to collaborate on multiple types of information. That means various mechanisms to address all sorts of content: create, find, point out, communicate about, comment, move, analyse.

    Take a look at SiteScape’s ICEcore (see http://icecore.org ), the company’s newest collaboration solution built on an open source project (disclaimer: I work there, but not in sales). For years, a diverse cross-section of organizations have used SiteScape software to create, manage and mine knowledge bases. ICEcore takes full advantage of robust search, content ratings and social networking structures to find and organize information: web entries (including those created automatically via email), files, metadata, personal and team workspaces.

    Note that financial industry clients have used our web-based platforms to construct “digital data rooms” to manage everything from bond offerings to M&A deals. See http://www.sitescape.com/solutions/solutions_financial.php

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  22. We are a distributed team. We use MediaWiki for internal use as well as to communicate with our clients and it’s worked amazingly well:
    http://www.dolcera.com/wiki

    Also, I’ve heard that Salesforce.com has a VC edition, that might work very well for you. Even though it’s a CRM system, it can be used very effectively to keep everyone on the same page regarding deal-flow etc.

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  23. I love threads like these. I’ve looked at several collaboration/document management/knowledge management/project management tools, but the comments on this post mentioned several tools I had never heard of before.

    Anyway, We’re using Wikka Wiki (http://wikkawiki.org/) in my group at work. Sharepoint is the “official” collaboration tool, but like Allen said, most teams use it to share documents. Wikka is very basic, but it currently meets our meager needs. (It get’s high marks at work for being way faster than Sharepoint and MediaWiki.)

    Have you looked at Mailroom? (http://sproutit.com/mailroom). It doesn’t exactly address what your looking for, but it might fit into your workflow somehow.

    Here’s a link to a simple open source knowledge management app: http://www.kbpublisher.com/.

    This link was also hanging out in my del.icio.us list. I’ve never used it, but it sounds like it might address some of your issues: http://9cays.com/. (It’s a hosted service, however.)

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  24. For the lazy (like me!), the “un-linked” links are: http://wikkawiki.org/ and http://sproutit.com/mailroom. I guess the blog software didn’t like the parens.

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  25. Allan,

    Voxiitech has developed a lightweight, robust platform for deploying such apps as Mobile/Web based collaboration tools. If Panorama Capital can throw minimal Investment $$$ on Voxiitech initiative, we’ll be more than glad to discuss further, while developing a collaboration tool specifically optimized and tailored to your needs… ( Free of charge of course… :-) )

    Would love to discuss this further with you.
    Contact: voxiitech@gmail.com

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  26. I do agree that there are some interesting new players out there. I’m testing Nomadesk right now (http://www.nomadesk.com) and you might want to check them out. What I particularly like about their solution, is that it so intuitive to use: you don’t have to connect to some shared online workspace. Nomadesk just adds a hard drive to your pc and the content of this hard drive is automatically shared and synchronized with the people you invite to this shared environment. It has got some interesting features to distribute a shared file via email too – so you might like it.

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  27. Allan, we have slightly different needs, and we have the ability to devote administrative resources to the problem. That said, we continue to be very impressed with Clearspace and have elected to deploy it as a core element of our collaboration solution.

    As you know, we are using Zimbra for enterprise calendaring and will soon move our email to Zimbra. We plan to augment Zimbra and use it as our new platform for email archiving.

    Since some of our users are requesting a “pure” wiki solution, we will provide either TWiki or MediaWiki as a supported service for the organization. We are using both today.

    We also need a document repository for our official records and will likely use Alfresco for that purpose.

    Great discussion–we’ll take a look at some of the tools mentioned above!

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  28. One thing that strikes me in Allan’s posting is :

    “I am hopeful our advisers can eventually start to use the web to collaborate vs. email, but I am not holding my breath.”

    What does really stop them to use the existing collaboration features…is it the tool or the habit/personal preference?

    Being a real time project collaborator from a company which develops collaboration tools,my experience is it is the effort of the leader in the collaboration process which makes collaboration successful – not the tool itself. It is a case of 99% inspiration and 1% @ perspiration ….

    It would be interesting to listen from others on this view.

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  29. Hi Allan et al.

    Have you considered Drupal? Drupal is open source and is a world class community and content management platform. It allows for a community of users to easily publish all kinds of content and to interact around that content in all kinds of ways. Tens of thousands of people and organizations have successfully employed Drupal, and it is increasingly the best choice for developing custom community and collaboration sites.

    I run Digital202, a web development shop focused on online communities and social networks, and we’ve been working with Drupal for over 3 years now. We leverage a geographically distributed model, working with people around the world to get things done, and so we’re naturally all about collaboration. Our big vision, Woven (www.wovenlabs.com), is all about developing the ultimate team collaboration environment.

    We build custom online communities, and we’re proficient with the best tools for the job. Please let us know how we can help you (or anyone reading this!) in your search.

    Best,

    –D

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  30. Suv,

    I agree that the tool itself isn’t always the most important factor in encouraging adoption. Here’s an article about social software adoption in the enterprise: http://www.socialtext.com/node/70

    I used a wiki for personal documentation for years at work before it began to catch on with coworkers. I had a reputation as “the documentation guy”, but at some point one of my co-workers said, “Holy crap! Look at all the information you have in this thing!” It just grew from there. If you have a main evangelist and one or two strong supporters who can help get the word out, aid newbies, and seed the tool with useful content, you increase your chances of improving adoption.

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  31. Allan Leinwand Monday, January 21, 2008

    @wendell and others – we’re not looking to replace MS Exchange, so moving to a new mailserver would be difficult to say the least.

    @Hazel – thanks! I’d welcome a look at your project. It looks like this thread has given me a lot to consider!

    @VoxiiTech – we’re definitely looking at the space, but more as users right now than investors. But, it’s always good to invest in what you know ;)

    @Lee – thanks for the insights from RedHat!

    @Suv – driving our advisors to website is difficult because these are very busy people who are already used to an email interface with us. I think that if we asked them to regularly check out a “Panorama Capital Advisors” website (host, web2.0 or otherwise) we would see little traction or utility. My main focus is to engage with our advisors proactively while giving them an archived resource to use as a knowledge base.

    @David – thanks – I’ll check out Drupal and the other tools mentioned here!

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  32. Hi Allen,

    You might want to check out our product – Tomoye Ecco – for partner collaboration. Strong on group collaboration (like Google Groups) with an additional component of social networking/ expert location.

    We are in the process of launching our new application so can send you a link to the Beta demo if you like.

    Eric

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  33. The perfect solution comes in 11 letters – HYPEROFFICE. Please check it out!

    H= Hassle-free; you are up and running in minutes!
    Y= Your preferred choice for a Microsoft Exchange
    server-alternative: easy-to-use,affordable, secure and flexible; no
    IT- maintenance required.
    P= Pay as you go; available for a low monthly subscription fee. No big
    upfront capital to worry about.
    E= Escape from IT overload; completely web-based, no software to
    download, install or maintain.
    R= Road-ready; accessible from any PC or MAC with an internet connection.
    O= Outlook-compatible; you can keep using Outlook and share calendars,
    documents, contacts, etc. without requiring Microsoft Exchange.
    F= Free interactive tutorials, training and technical support.
    F= Free Trial for 30 days without obligation.
    I= Integrity and security of your data will never be compromised; with
    state-of-the-art virus protection and data back-up programs.
    C= Comprehensive; includes more than 10 easy-to-use features.
    E= Economical; offers online collaboration tools and value that used to
    be found only in costly-corporate products at about $7 only per
    month/user, allows you to add new members as your business grows.

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  34. Check out HyperOffice.com so far it’s the best find today!

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  35. Please check out Hyperoffice.com. You, too will find it as an excellent choice for a Microsoft Exchange Server-Alternative: user-friendly, available for a low-monthly subscription fee (no upfront capital required), completely web-based and highly accessible – you can access it from any PC or MAC with an internet connection; cross-platform and cross-browser compatible.

    HyperOffice is also highly flexible; it can be more than your company intranet platform as it can also serve as a customer portal or extranet for your business.

    http://www.hyperoffice.com

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  36. When you are ready to check out ProjecLounge – give me a call on 773 472 2261 or drop me an email – hazel_m_connor@projectlounge.com.

    I’ll try to make sure you have all the information to have a successful trial.

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  37. Allan,

    Thanks for mentioning GroupSwim. We are in full agreement with you that email must be a component of any effective collaboration tool or strategy. It is the lowest common denominator and has be part of the solution. We’ve also blogged on this topic if you want to check it out. Thanks.

    http://blog.groupswim.com/

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  38. Hi:

    If you get a chance, please check out “Study Hall” app on
    Facebook. Soon it will be available on all other open social
    social networks. It is a very easy to use and collaborative
    tool – it has an education focus, but can be used for
    all applications. Thanks.

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  39. Mundial Communications has just beta launched a UNIFIED MESSAGING AND COLLABORATION platform for the general consumer and SME. It just may be what you are looking for. The following screenshots speak louder then words:
    http://www.mundialco.com/unifiedmessaging/2008/01/22/yambi-demo-screenshots/

    You may also check our presentation at Proto.in at: http://www.mundialco.com/unifiedmessaging/2008/01/22/yambi-presentation-at-protoin-08/

    The story continues at http://www.yambi.com

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  40. I totally agree with Christiene, with the idea of HYPEROFFICE. But it shouldn’t be web based only. It should be able to offer the user both the online and offline experience. check http://www.mundialco.com/unifiedmessaging/2008/01/22/yambi-presentation-at-protoin-08/

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  41. i have heard amazing things about http://www.octopz.com

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  42. <<My main focus is to engage with our advisors proactively while giving <<them an archived resource to use as a knowledge base.

    You could send them the raw .box file that contains the organized information. Or you could use the pdf builder, one menu click, and you get a fully bookmarked pdf file.

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  43. Hey Allen,

    http://www.octabox.com might be exactly what you are looking for, right now it is still in private beta, but soon we’re releasing the public beta.

    Octabox is intended to be a platform for small businesses and professionals individuals, from project management integrated with personal notes, mind mapping, a CRM module and several other modules.

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  44. Thanks for all of the comments folks!

    @Michael – I’ll check out HyperOffice.

    @jc – our advisors are CTOs and CIOs of large companies. They want ease of use and are used to ineracting with us via email. I just can’t see sending them a raw file format of any sort and getting a better collaboration with them.

    @Adam – thanks, I’d be curious to see the public beta.

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  45. WORLD-FIRST CONSUMER UNIFIED MESSAGING PLATFORM

    Yambi Messaging and Collaboration is actually the only platform in the world specially meant for the consumer and small businesses worldwide.

    Unlike many existing Unified Messaging and Collaboration platforms whose servers are very expensive, but cannot be hosted in broadband or any other dynamic network, Yambi servers can be hosted in any network: dynamic or static, even with simple dial-up connection.

    DESIGNED FOR THE CONSUMERS

    Yambi is really the world-first Consumer Unified Messaging and Collaboration server that offers a unique offline-online experience.

    You will agree that the best place to host your data remains your local hard drive. However, as you are not desk-bound at all times, the need exists to access these data remotely or to push them automatically to your mobile device. This has proved throughout the years almost an impossible mission, unless you can afford costly servers like Exchange, Domino etc. But because these servers don’t work on broadband, – despite the fact that broadband has become the preferred internet connection worldwide, – you have to acquire expensive dedicated networks as well.

    It is a fact that the majority of Internet users cannot afford this solution. In order to remotely access their data, they are forced to host them on the web only (without offline options), often with companies they can’t completely trust. But believe me, not all data are meant to be hosted by a third party.

    TOTAL CONTROL

    Yambi platform gives you total control over your data and freedom of hosting choice. It can be hosted on your local hard drive, on a remote virtual machine, on any data Centre, on a few of your peers’ machines, even on a memory stick.

    SECURE COMMUNICATION CHANNEL

    Mundial Communications patent pending technology keeps related servers at all time visible to each other and establishes a peer to peer secure communication channel between servers and their clients; making it possible for an all-time and anywhere multi-point Access/Delivery of your data (Desktop, Web, Mobile Devices)

    IMAGINE

    Imagine.., Imagine Microsoft Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Groove Server and their respective clients, integrated into one Application. Now, imagine the integrated application targeting the general consumer and SME worldwide. Imagine a unified Messaging service for the consumer that is so simple that even Grannies can use it. With an Unified Messaging platform whose mobile data (E-mail, IM, SMS, Files and Media) are sent and received over IP. Thus escaping the exorbitant charges from the Mobile Carriers.

    Imagine your Outlook, or any other mail client integrating all your Mail accounts, Contact management with Presence, secure and archived Instant messaging, shared and group calendar, file sharing, etc with Server-side hosted data.

    Imagine … Yambi: a unified messaging platform for the consumer worldwide.

    Yambi: your unique and secure PVN (personal virtual network)

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  46. Interesting requirements! I don’t know of any commercial tool that can do this either. IBM does seem to be using something that is able to do this, refering to this HBR article I posted about some time ago.

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  47. what uses do you see for a digg style system which allows you to vote up or vote down documents? this would obviously be of no use for need based documents that everyone needs to perform their tasks. it would work for collaborative learning tho, where knowledge articles/documents which many people have found interesting would be more visible.

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  48. Hi Allan,

    Have you ever tried Central Desktop? Well, in one sentence… Central Desktop is one of the best Project Management, File Sharing, Team Collaboration tools around. You’ve heard of Microsoft Sharepoint, right? Well, Central Desktop is 110% better. I’m confident it’s what you’re looking for.

    CD will help you organize and share information efficiently, communicate with co-workers/colleagues (internal/external) and collaborate on projects.

    Please check it out when you have a moment.
    http://www.centraldesktop.com

    Good Luck!

    Best,
    Tia

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  49. Allan,

    It has been a year since your posting, what did you select? Do you have any lessons to share?

    I am writing a paper for school on the implementation of a Collaboration tool for a company, so your insights would be very helpful.

    Thank You
    Evan

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  50. Like Allan we are using and very happy with MS Exchange, but looking for a project management solution that works with Outlook.

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