TeamLab a strong contender for online collaboration crown

On Monday I looked at AceProject, a fully featured heavyweight project management tool in the first of two features for this week on online collaboration tools.

As I have not been initiated into the arcane art of project management I found getting things up and running a tadge difficult and unintuitive, which is not to detract from AceProject; I am more than happy to throw my hands up and admit user confusion. The same cannot be said of the second of this week’s offering – TeamLab.

In fact I shall probably regret love at first sight because these things tend to come back and bite you on the arse, but TeamLab is probably one of the best online collaboration tools I have come across for a long time.

TeamLab is produced by Ascensio System SIA from Latvia and is totally open source and, like AceProject, can be deployed on a hosted platform or on your own servers. Being open source TeamLab utilises other OS software to enhance its usability. It’s powerful online office suite capabilities is down to its seamless integration with OpenOffice which you need to install to appreciate the full potential of TeamLab. The service also utilises full real time instant messaging which is achieved by utilising core Jabber software.

TeamLab offers the familiar modules dealing with project management, document management, business collaboration and instant messaging. Email and CRM facilities are being developed and will be launched later. Each of the main modules contains child modules. For example business collaboration also includes portals for HR functions, blogs and newsletters, a photograph library, bookmarks and a wiki.

Building your online team can be done via email – Gmail, Yahoo or Windows Live – importing from a CSV or MS Outlook file or, horror of horrors, inputting the information manually! Creating projects, like the HR function, is simplicity itself. Once you create the project you can create milestones, tasks etc and then allocate them to team members. The whole process is menu led – see graphic top left, and the service also allows you to important files from Basecamp. If you don’t want to use the default template you can create your own

Storing online documents and sharing these is, again, very easy and TeamLab allows you to import documents from Google Docs or Zoho – smart move. Imported documents and spreadsheets appear to be automatically converted from their native formats into OpenOffice format which I don’t have a problem with but some people might object to this. When you start TeamLab you link it to OpenOffice through a plugin which puts a TeamLab tab menu bar. Note this only happens if you start OpenOffice from within TeamLab; start OpenOffice on its own and the TeamLab tab does not appear.

In the documents module when you tick box a document an option to edit that file in OpenOffice appears on the right hand side. As you would expect you can create your own bespoke folders and move documents between them, a useful facility when you import stuff from Google Docs and want to re-file them later, for example.

TeamLab allows you to run full reports according to your own turnkey filters which is limited only by your own imagination.

Is TeamLab too good to be true. Well for starters considering it is free – at least for the time being – this has to be one of the best online collaboration tools around, But there are shortcomings. Although there is the ability to create events I would like to see a seamless and full synchronisation with Google Calendar. I would also like something similar that Microsoft has incorporated into its Office 2010 suite with the Google Connect facility so all documents can be saved not only on the TeamLab server but with Google Docs.

My only other real fear regarding TeamLab is how long can it remain free? I am very aware that companies may trust their data to a service and then find some time down the road that the prices change and they are trapped. Is it possible to export data from TeamLab apart from the simple facility to download documents?

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Kevin Tea is a journalist and marketing communications professional who has worked for some of the leading blue chip companies in the UK and Europe. In the 1990s he became interested in how emerging Internet-based technologies could change the way that people worked and became an administrator on the Telework Europa Forum on CompuServe. With other colleagues he took part in a four year European Commission sponsored project to look at the way that the Internet could benefit remote communities. His blog is a resource for SMEs who want to use cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies.