November 27, 2006

O3Spaces takes on SharePoint for document collaboration

Author: Dmitri Popov

As a standalone office suite, OpenOffice.org lacks a back-end solution similar to Microsoft Office SharePoint, the software that integrates the office suite into a document collaboration and document management environment. Sure, there are applications that can handle both version control and user management, but until now, none of them offered seamless integration with OpenOffice.org that was easy enough for an average office worker to use. To fill the void, a relatively new Dutch software outfit has released O3Spaces, an integrated collaboration and document management application for workgroups and small businesses that use OpenOffice.org or its commercial sibling StarOffice.

I took the newly released software for a spin. The evaluation version of O3Spaces is supplied as a neatly preconfigured VMware virtual machine, which is a nice touch considering what it would require in time and labor to install and configure all the software components manually: O3Spaces is written in Java, and it's based on the Tomcat/PostgreSQL stack.

O3Spaces consists of two main components: a Web-based interface that allows users to access all O3Spaces features, and a desktop utility called Workplace Assistant that acts as a link between OpenOffice.org and O3Spaces. The application's cleverly designed Web interface helps to keep its multitude of available features at your fingertips.

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The key concept of O3Spaces is a workspace, which is a working area and a document repository created for a particular task or project. Besides documents, a workspace contains other collaboration tools, such as a calendar to keep tabs on team schedules, and a discussion forum where team members can communicate with each other. Using the Workspaces menu in the Navigation bar, you can quickly switch to the workspace you want. The Navigation bar also allows the users to locate files and jump to the discussion page of a particular workspace.

O3Spaces' Web interface also supports tabs, which makes it easier manage multiple locations and pages. To make the interface less cluttered, O3Spaces uses spacelets, which can be either containers that holds specific content (e.g. documents and files in the given workspace) or widgets that provide access to Calendar, Text, and Announcements. The main workspace page, for example, may have the Recently Changed Documents, Versions, Team members, and Calendar spacelets. You can create tabs for additional pages in the workspace and populate the pages with spacelets. In a very Web 2.0 manner, you can rearrange spacelets on the page using drag and drop. Using the Web interface, you can manage files and documents in a way similar to that of a conventional file manager: you can cut, copy, paste, and move folders and files, and check in and check out documents.

As you might expect, O3Spaces sports a powerful indexing and search feature. Using it, you can search inside documents (including PDF files) and see document versions, discussions, and document notes.

The Workplace Assistant utility does three things: it allows you to quickly jump to a particular Workspace directly from the Desktop, it acts as a link between O3Spaces and OpenOffice.org, and it provides real-time notifications to keep you abreast of changes in the workspaces.

The most important feature of O3Spaces is undoubtedly its integration with OpenOffice.org/StarOffice via a plugin for the office software. The Workplace Assistant allows you to quickly configure the plugin, and you can then access documents stored in your workspaces directly from within OpenOffice.org. Better yet, the assistant allows you to perform all sorts of actions without switching to the Web interface. For example, when you open a document for editing, the assistant automatically checks it out. It then checks the document back in when you are done with it. Moreover, O3Spaces creates a version of the document for each edit session. With the Workplace Assistant running, you can even select a document using the Web interface and open it directly in OpenOffice.org.

O3Spaces also supports Microsoft Office document formats, which is a boon for workgroups and companies that have to be "compatible" with the rest of the world.

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O3Spaces studio makes the maintenance and administration tasks equally simple. The main entry screen of the O3Spaces studio provides access to the essential administration features such as Company Management, where the administrator can add, edit, and remove company profiles; Workspace Management, which gives you access to the tools necessary to manage workspaces; User Management, for keeping tabs on users; and Workplace tools that allows you to manage servers and backups.

O3Spaces comes in three editions: On Demand, Professional, and Open. The first two are hosted for-pay editions, while the latter is the open source version of the O3Spaces software that is expected to become available sometime in 2007.

All in all, O3Spaces looks very impressive. It sports a slick and highly customizable interface, seamless integration with OpenOffice.org and StarOffice, and all the features most businesses need to collaborate and manage documents effectively. And it might be just the thing OpenOffice.org needs to become a viable alternative to Microsoft Office for small businesses and workgroups.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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  • Enterprise Applications
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