Collaborative Sites

By Bryan M. Sims

One of the great aspects of the Internet is that it allows you to connect with others regardless of your respective locations. With the ubiquity of wireless networks and Internet connections via cellular network, there are few locations where high-speed Internet access is not available. This opens up a world of possibilities in two significant respects.

First, you are no longer chained to your desk. You can work from your office, from your home, from a coffee shop, or from just about anywhere else. With the right equipment, all of which is easily and affordably available, you have the freedom to work from wherever you want to be.

Second, you have the freedom to work with whomever you wish to, regardless of where they are. The free and instantaneous communication provided by the Internet lets you work as easily with a client in Cairo or Amsterdam as with someone just down the street—or even with other lawyers in your office.

In either of the above situations, the typical method of communication is to send e-mails back and forth exchanging information and comments on documents. Alternatives have recently appeared, however, that let everyone involved in a given situation work together in a virtual collaborative workspace, sharing ideas, often in real time, without having to circulate e-mails to everyone involved. By doing so, you not only diminish the possibility of someone missing an e-mail, you also ensure that everyone is working from the most current version of the document.

Of the various services that have appeared recently, five have caught the attention of users: Google Docs, Microsoft Office Live Workspace, Zoho, Glide, and Acrobat.com.

Although similar in concept in that each provides a collaborate method of working together, each also offers different features, making some services more appealing than others, depending on your situation. Each of the services discussed below includes a word processing program as a central component of the services offered. Additionally, most offer spreadsheet and presentation programs, as well as other assorted services. This article concentrates on the collaborative and word processing aspects of these sites.

Google Docs

The logical place to start any discussion about collaborative word processing is with Google Docs ( docs.google.com). Google Docs is the word processing arm of the myriad Google services currently available. This means that you can sign up for and access your Google Docs account by using the same login and password that you use to access your Gmail account or Google Reader.

One benefit of using Google Docs is that it integrates well with other Google services. For example, you can convert an e-mail that you receive in Gmail to a document in Google Docs with one click. Similarly, if you use Gmail contacts to store your contact information, you can easily pick people from your contacts to share your documents with.

When sharing a document with someone, you can choose to invite either collaborators (who can edit the document) or viewers (who can read but not edit the document). Additionally, you can choose whether to allow your collaborators to invite others to access the document.

Up to ten people can work on a document at any one time, with up to a total of 200 simultaneous viewers and collaborators. If multiple people are working on a document at the same time, a small box appears at the bottom of the screen identifying each person accessing the document.

Although Google Docs includes some formatting features, I would not want to use it to draft any documents with complicated formatting. When I uploaded one of my pleadings, Google Docs handled the conversion fairly well, but it wasn’t as polished as I would have liked it to be. Nevertheless, Google Docs would likely work great for straight word processing or for putting the document together and then exporting it to Word or WordPerfect to apply the final formatting.

You can save your Google Docs document in a variety of formats, including Word, RTF, and PDF. This process is as simple as a couple of mouse clicks. The program also includes the ability to work on your documents off-line and then synchronize them once you have access to the Internet again. Google Docs provides space to store up to 5,000 documents, with a limit of 500 K per document.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

At the other end of the spectrum from Google Docs is Microsoft Office Live Workspace ( http://workspace.officelive.com). Google Docs is very open, allowing you to work with a variety of documents and formats. However, it is not a full-featured word processing program. Microsoft Office Live Workspace, on the other hand, is designed primarily to work with Microsoft Office Documents (although you can upload other formats to your workspace) and gives you full word processing functions.

Unlike the process in Google Docs (and the other services discussed in this article), in which you work on the document on a server from within your web browser, in Microsoft Office Live Workspace the service downloads the document to your computer. You then work on it from within your copy of Word. When you are done, you save the document back to the shared workspace.

Doing this gives you the full-featured word processing program that you find in Word; however, it diminishes the ability to have multiple people working together on the same document at the same time. Microsoft Office Live Workspace allows you to store up to 500 MB of documents, with a limit of 25 MB per document. Further, you can share your documents with up to 100 other people.

One interesting fact that I noted with Microsoft Office Live Workspace was that, unlike many Microsoft web applications, it worked just fine with the Firefox web browser and did not require the use of Internet Explorer.

Zoho

Zoho ( www.business.zoho.com), like Google, is a full suite of integrated programs. The word processing feature is similar in concept to that offered by Google Docs; however, the formatting features are more robust, giving you more control over things such as the page layout. With Zoho’s free business plan, you receive 1 GB of storage that can be shared with up to ten users. Zoho charges $50 per year for each user beyond the tenth.

Zoho also offers more customization of the shared workspace. For example, you can remove unwanted applications from your workspace or add your own custom logo. As with Google Docs, you can work with documents offline and then synchronize them later with your Zoho account. In addition to uploading documents to your Zoho account, you can also e-mail your documents to your account. This makes it especially easy to add documents that you received on a mobile device.

Glide

If 1 GB of storage is not enough for you, you might want to check out Glide ( www.glideos.com), which provides 10 GB of free storage and allows you to add up to five users free of charge.

Glide offers similar word processing tools to those found in Zoho. Additionally, it offers a larger variety of fonts than the other services. As with Google Docs and Zoho, Glide includes an application that you install on your local PC that allows you to synchronize your documents between your local PC and your Glide account.

Additionally, to leverage itself as “the complete mobile desktop solution,” Glide integrates with most mobile devices and allows you to access your documents at www.glidemobile.com. Further, if you set your documents to synchronize, any changes that you make from your mobile device are automatically synchronized to your local PC.

Glide includes many other integrated services and applications in addition to word processing. Glide includes an organizer that does a good job of managing audio and video files. If this is important to you, Glide may be a good option.

The one drawback to Glide is its handling of collaboration, which is not nearly as flexible or as tightly integrated as in the other services. If most of your collaboration is with the same person or persons on a regular basis, then it would likely work fine. Thus, Glide would be a good solution for a lawyer who wants to collaborate with others in the same office, but it would not be the best choice for someone who needs to collaborate with an ever-changing list of people.

Acrobat.com

Adobe has also joined the online collaboration revolution with its service Acrobat.com. Access is free, and it offers storage of 5 GB. Adobe plans to offer paid plans with more storage and other services once the beta stage is complete.

Two aspects of Acrobat.com stand out. The first is Adobe Buzzword. Buzzword is a new word processing program. Like Google Docs, it is not as full featured as Word or WordPerfect. However, it distills word processing to its basics and, as a result, is very simple and intuitive to use. Just as with Google Docs, it likely will meet most, if not all, of your word processing needs.

One of the unique features of Acrobat.com is that each document is given its own URL (web address). Thus, if you want, you can go directly to that document. Additionally, the site works well for collaboration; each person with access to the shared document is assigned a different color, allowing you to easily identify who made a particular change or comment. Further, you can see which version of a document any particular person has reviewed, and you can access prior versions of a document from its history.

The second aspect of Acrobat.com that stands out is ConnectNow, a web conferencing feature. ConnectNow allows you to conference with up to three people. In the conference, you can talk via VoIP (Internet phone service), share notes, use a webcam, or share your desktop. Additionally, the person who created the meeting can assign roles to the meeting participants, allowing them to share their desktops as well.

Choosing the Right Service

Given the ease of travel and the advancement of technology, it is likely that some collaborative workspace will benefit you in the near future. As can be seen by a review of these five providers, a variety of services exist to meet these needs. If you need something simple that most people already have access to, Google Docs may be your answer. If you have a limited number of people you want to collaborate with or you want to be sure that you can share and play multimedia files, you might want to check out Glide. If you know that you want to use web conferencing or to share your desktop, consider leveraging the power of Adobe.com with its ConnectNow service. If you want a full-featured web-based word processor, see if Zoho meets your needs. If you really need to use all of the features found in your Microsoft Office products, consider Microsoft Office Live Workspace.

In fact, given that you can try each of these services for free, there is no reason not to have multiple accounts to use, depending on your particular situation.

The one thing to keep in mind, however, is to review the terms of service before you upload any privileged or confidential information to these providers’ websites. How do they secure documents and back them up? You must ensure that your documents are secure and that no one else can access them without your permission. Further, given that companies can change their terms of service at will, you need to monitor any changes that may occur.

As long as you take reasonable steps to ensure that you have met your ethical obligations, you will likely find an online collaboration service that allows you to leverage the power of the Internet to work more efficiently and effectively.

Bryan M. Sims practices with Thompson, Rosenthal & Watts, LLP in Naperville, Illinois. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2009

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