Discussion software designed for end-user administration
There's very little discussion software that falls between "chat" software -- software designed purely to engage real-time discussions -- and groupware, which is still the province of centralized IT departments. A more feasible alternative in terms of both dollars and personnel is "teamware," collaboration tools designed to be implemented and administered on the workgroup level. Perhaps the best example of teamware today is eRoom.
eRoom is designed to foster a decision-making process amongst members of a team. A team leader will open a room devoted to a specific topic and then invite other system members to participate in that room; the leader can enter the names and passwords of the invited users from scratch or pick them from a Windows NT domain registry. Discussions can contain more than one topic and can be multithreaded; if a discussion of marketing, for example, turns into a related and vital discussion of another topic, a new thread can be added and the original discussion maintained. The leader can set up a poll to see how all the members feel about a specific topic. A more feasible alternative in terms of both dollars and personnel is "teamware," collaboration tools designed to be implemented and administered on the workgroup level. eRoom is designed to foster a decision-making process amongst members of a team.
The mechanics of eRoom are very simple for users. When you enter a URL pointing to a discussion, you're taken to an eRoom containing icons representing various aspects of the project -- discussions, documents, links to other discussions or Internet resources, and folders containing other documents and discussions. The eRoom server manages all these resources, archiving old copies of discussions and documents and tracking who changed what when.
Document management is at the center of these discussions, as users are asked to comment on documents as the system tracks changes. Users can be automatically notified of virtually anything, whether it be the results of a poll or changes made to a document. A Fulcrum search engine has been added to version 2.0, making it easier to search through past discussions and older documents. Electronic mail and invitations can be sent from a wide variety of e-mail applications, including Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, Netscape Mail, Lotus Notes and Eudora.
If you were to implement a similar document-based discussion on Lotus Notes, you'd need a Notes administrator to configure and run the discussion on an ongoing basis. The beauty of eRoom is that anyone can administer an eRoom discussion -- no programming or system administration experience is required.
Users are required to install a browser plug-in for Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator running under Windows (compare this to Lotus Notes, which requires a full client), while the eRoom server must be installed on a Windows NT 4.0 Server running Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) 3.0 or better. Alas, the biggest fault in eRoom is its close ties to Microsoft products; Apple Macintosh users can't use a plug-in, and sites running Netscape or Apache can't support the eRoom server.
Still, for those sites committed to Microsoft products, eRoom can be a valuable addition for anyone wishing to collaborate on important documents and projects. With low administrative overhead and an easy-to-use interface, eRoom is the future of Internet software.
Pros: Easy to install and configure, Inexpensive, Advanced security controls, A single server supports thousands of users and hundreds of eRooms; Multi-threaded, multi-topic discussions
Cons: Closely tied to Microsoft IIS and NT, 7 No Mac/Unix versions (server or client) available, No support for Netscape or Apache Web servers