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Making Communication First Class With FirstClass

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FirstClass: Unified messaging and communications server

Although not nearly as well known as Lotus Notes or Exchange, FirstClass from Open Text is a groupware solution that lives up to its name with a feature set poised to take on the pack.

What do you have when 10,000 people need to talk to each other? The short answer: A mess. And as a result, tangled and unwieldy software applications have been spawned in an attempt to manage the lot of it all.

The two best known solutions are Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. Not only are these the most well known but, in the minds of many enterprise managers, they’re also the only fillies in the stable. But hold your horses — we’ve found a new thoroughbred. Open Text’s FirstClass is an ambitious attempt to meet these venerable vendors head-on.

Other vendors have produced collaboration software that hooks its cart to one of the blue chip behemoth products, or else tries to integrate or enhance standard network channels of communication, such as POP e-mail and instant messaging. The former approach skirts the problem; the latter tends to result in a confusing mosaic of pasted-together bits.

FirstClass is best described as a communications operating system within an operating system, in the way that, say, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” revolves around a play-within-a-play.

FirstClass uses the term “unified” to describe its architecture, and it boils down to a monolithic approach to communications: one comprehensive system handles all channels of communication, from public (message forums) to private (e-mail) to real time (instant messaging), and even to voice.

The FirstClass design philosophy is that from an individual user’s perspective, all forms of communication are accessible from one place, regardless of the channel or form. As a philosophy, this makes a whole lot of sense.

But any product can have a philosophy. The real stick in the mud with groupware is pulling it off, such that the many subtle complexities of coordinating interactions among thousands of people doesn’t overwhelm the application and drag it down into a morass of confusion.

And we found FirstClass able to pull this off.

The installation procedure for FirstClass boded well. The download for the server software is approximately 40 MB, and it consumes the same when installed.

Of course, because the system will, by its nature, accumulate messages and data over time, the disk space requirements could grow significantly. Installing the server is a very straightforward process. Considering the complexity of the software, the install is simpler than even the typical mail server. FirstClass includes an optional “Internet Services” module that allows for remote, Internet-based access to the FirstClass server. This allows users to manage their communications remotely via the Web without needing the FirstClass client. Nonetheless, the FirstClass client — a svelte 4 MB download for Windows or Mac — is the preferred means for managing FirstClass communications from an intranet client.

The FirstClass user interface follows the familiar desktop metaphor, consisting of windows and icons for functions and files. Between viewing your mail folder, opening a message, checking into a conference room, and managing your meeting calendar, there is a tendency to quickly accumulate open windows. Some people find this style of information display extremely liberating — as opposed to keeping everything within one visual window — while some may find it confusing or annoying.

Although FirstClass “reinvents the wheel” as far as creating its own e-mail interface, message board interface, and so on, it manages to present a very comfortable learning curve. Anyone who’s used these communications channels in other venues will quickly adapt to the FirstClass interface.

FirstClass supports a wide variety of tools — users can exchange messages, documents, and voicemail, and then mix these together in collaborative conference environments. Interactive calendaring can set meeting schedules for two or more people and resolve scheduling conflicts. Many buzzwords are in play here, but that’s because there are a myriad possible ways to communicate using FirstClass.

Especially noteworthy is the fact that FirstClass is central and server based. This means that users can manage their communications from virtually anywhere: a FirstClass client on a colleague’s machine, a Web browser from a hotel room, or even a PDA. This is a win-win architecture. For the users, all communications are indeed centrally available at all times. For the administrators, the whole FirstClass system can be managed under one umbrella — indeed, on one physical machine, depending on the size of the user base — without having to deal with communications distributed among many thousands of individual computers.

FirstClass is potentially suitable for enterprises of all sizes. Very small organizations can opt for the free five-user version, for example, although such an organization might prefer to manage its communications with e-mail, Web documents, instant messaging, and old-fashioned Post-It Notes.

Where FirstClass will shine the brightest, and where things often get most hairy, is in organizations that must support communications between hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of users. In this hotly contested market, FirstClass has what it takes to keep its cool.

Pros: Efficient administration; Intuitive interface; Central server-based design and unified messaging
Cons: Might be too much product for small organizations; Tendency to spawn many windows might irritate some users; Complex pricing scheme

Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Original Review Date: 7/2/2003
Original Review Version: 7.1

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