Collaborating with Mindquarry


Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

If there’s one thing the world doesn’t lack for, besides bad movie sequels and dishonest politicians, it’s collaboration software. Good collaboration software that’s open source, on the other hand, is a rare thing indeed — so I was pleased to discover that the Mindquarry GO beta service and the Mindquarry tools are well-done, if a bit limited in scope.

Mindquarry offers a few basic services — synchronization and revision control for shared files, collaboration via a prettified and integrated wiki, and a shared Web-based task manager. There are two components: the server software and a desktop client. It’s not rocket science, but Mindquarry has tied the tools together well in an easy-to-use package.

The company has released an open source version of its server software, and it also plans to offer a hosted service in September. The feature set should be the same for the hosted and self-serve versions of the service, but the hosted version will obviously offer greater ease of use and remove the need for organizations to do their own administration.

Mindquarry is primarily a Web-based application, but the company provides Java-based desktop clients for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The client isn’t particularly speedy in loading, but it’s fine once it starts up.

The desktop client doesn’t do a great deal, though. It resides in the system tray and allows you to synchronize files or add tasks. It doesn’t allow you to do anything with the wiki or manage users — it’s strictly a tool to manage some of Mindquarry’s simpler operations. However, you need the client, because you can’t use the browser interface to sync or upload files; you can only download files via the browser.

Luckily, you’re not limited to Mindquarry’s official client for managing files. According to the support docs, you can use any WebDAV or Subversion client to manage files between your desktop and the Mindquarry server. I had no problems using RapidSVN to sync files from my desktop to and from the test account, though that was less user-friendly than using the official client.

Most of your work will be done in Mindquarry’s Web interface. By default, users are greeted with an Ajaxified interface that is fairly responsive. If Ajax isn’t your thing, or it doesn’t work properly with your browser, you can turn it off by clicking a “don’t use it” link at the bottom of any Mindquarry page.

Mindquarry’s wiki, tasks, and file components offer RSS feeds, so users can simply plop a feed into any feed reader and track changes that way without resorting to the browser interface. Users can also grab an iCal file from the tasks page to track tasks managed with Mindquarry.

You’ll probably find Mindquarry’s wiki component much more usable than, say, MediaWiki. It comes with a friendly WYSIWYG interface, and it’s fairly snappy even for a browser-based application. Its version tracking is nice, though I didn’t see an easy way to revert to previous versions.

The wiki component also produces PDFs of the wiki pages for easy download, which is handy for saving static versions of documents or sharing docs with folks who don’t have access to (or can’t be bothered to access) Mindquarry.

One thing that surprised me is that there’s no way to tie files to tasks, or a wiki page to a task. If I’ve assigned a user a task that include files — such as asking someone to write a report, or providing a style guide to an author — I’d like to be able to attach a file to that task and see the file when I open the task instead of having to switch between two tabs in the Web interface.

Good for your team?

In Mindquarry, everything is grouped by “team,” so it’s easy for users to see what the other members of their team have been doing, including the tasks set up for the team, and what files have been added, modified, and removed by team members. For certain kinds of projects, it would do pretty well. For example, I was looking at it with an eye toward using it for our editorial team.

For us, it would work marginally well for assigning and claiming stories and topics, and would be a really nice way for authors to keep a repository of their work where others could get at it as well. However, the limitation on relating files and tasks makes it less than optimal. Ideally, I’d like to create a writing task tied to an article, and then attach a file to that, then reassign the task to an editor at a later date. If the article needed revision, the editor should be able to attach the new version to the task, and then reassign the task to the author.

Pricing for the software is not up on the Mindquarry site yet, but according to my contact the company will be offering a free account that provides up to 50MB of disk space, and offer paid accounts from $10 a month for 500MB up to $150 a month for a dedicated server with 100GB of storage.

The hosted Mindquarry service was in beta while I was testing it, so I’m not dinging the service for the minor glitches that I ran into while testing. My goal was to see how useful the service is for collaboration, and whether the feature set offered by Mindquarry is worth using.

Mindquarry has a ways to go before it’s a “must-have” application. I found it to be an interesting, if somewhat bare-bones, tool. I look forward to seeing the next revision of the application, as it does have a lot of promise.


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