Two tales of Web collaboration

ERoom and Groove offer different approaches but same results.

It doesn't take much effort to see the benefits that collaboration tools bring to just about any type of team. Having the ability to effortlessly share documents, notes and conversations between geographically dispersed team members can be invaluable. The tough part is keeping all that information up-to-date and synchronized. If the collaboration tool doesn't make that process easy, it probably won't be used for long.

ERoom and Groove Virtual Office — both of which have recently been released in new versions — provide similar capabilities with very different approaches. eRoom takes a centralized-server tack using either a hosted application model ( or an in-house server located behind the corporate firewall. Groove, on the other hand, uses a peer-to-peer model with minimal central control.

Just another pretty interface?

The products use the concept of a container to keep similar information grouped together. Groove's container is a "work space" while in eRoom, it's an "eRoom."

Each product makes it easy to create a new work space or eRoom tailored specifically to the task at hand. Individual items or tools get added to the container at the time of creation, although you can add more later on.

Using a server-based strategy, eRoom stores work space data in a central database. You have your choice of employing Microsoft SQL Server or SQL Anywhere. ERoom also offers multiple predefined template databases to make customization easier.

Notification alerts let end users know when any item of special interest has changed in an eRoom or a Groove work space or if new information has been added to an area the user wants to track.

Meeting facilitation is another common capability between the two products. ERoom has a meeting-tracking feature that makes it easy to schedule a meeting, invite participants and add items into a common area for the group to use. The Calendar tool can be synchronized with a user's Microsoft Outlook calendar as well.

Groove uses several forms to help track meeting agendas, minutes and action items. There's also a button to publish the meeting along with the profile, agenda and minutes. The only downside is that if you make changes in Outlook the Groove files are not automatically updated.

When the Groove team began designing Version 3.0 of their product, they decided on a user interface model that almost everyone is familiar with — instant messaging. The end result of the interface makeover is the Groove Launchbar, which lists all of the work spaces a user belongs to. Major sections of the Launchbar — such as Active, Unread and Read — make it possible for users to quickly see what information needs their attention.

A second tab on the Groove Launchbar displays all contacts in much the same way you'd see them with an instant messaging program. Three headings group the listings into Active, Online and Offline. We liked the handy option, available from just about anywhere inside Groove, titled "Save Shortcut to Desktop," which makes it easy to return to a task later.

For its part, eRoom offers a standard or enhanced Web browser interface. The enhanced version loads an ActiveX component to make file operations more intuitive; it's available only on the Microsoft Windows platform. Using the standard Web browser makes eRoom available to virtually any user regardless of platform or browser software.

Although eRoom doesn't have the same user interface model as Groove, it does arrange information in a structured way. A better analogy for eRoom might be Windows Explorer with its tree-like presentation of drives, file folders and network resources in a panel on the left and a display of contents in a panel on the right.

Assigning user roles

Administration of individual work spaces or eRooms is left up to the original creator. Both products support the concept of user roles and allow you to assign those roles to individuals by project. They provide essentially the same level of control over user access.

ERoom has a feature that allows new users to authenticate against an external directory such as Windows NT domains or a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol server. These new users must then be added by the creator of the work space to specific eRooms for access.

Groove takes more of an invitation approach, enabling you to invite users to join a particular work space. For bulk import of contacts, Groove supports Vcard-formatted VCG or VCF files.

Because Groove does not use a central file to store information, no additional administration is required. The data is automatically backed up because it is shared among all members of the work space.

Groove does, however, offer an optional relay server, which acts as a "who's online" point and doesn't require extensive storage or administration.

In fact, if you want to employ a relay server, you can choose between Groove's service or you can buy a relay server license and run your own server behind your firewall.

In contrast, an eRoom server requires an external backup program to maintain copies of the data for disaster recovery purposes. Because eRoom uses a database — either Microsoft SQL Server or SQL Anywhere — you'll need to use standard database practices to maintain it.

Something of value

The value of these Web collaboration tools for distributed teams is obvious. Both products offer similar capabilities with a few extras that distinguish them., for example, offers a hosted or outsourced solution that requires no hardware or software purchase to get started. The eRoom tool is, however, significantly more expensive depending on the hosting model chosen.

Groove offers similar capabilities with a distributed model for a reasonable cost per user. If you can live with the peer-to-peer nature of Groove, you'll definitely get more bang for your buck.

Ferrill, based in Lancaster, Calif., has been writing about computers and software for more than 18 years. He can be reached at

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