Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Colligo Contributor v2.0 Review

Part of our practice methodology at The eGroup/BinaryWave is to use SharePoint Team Sites to manage all of our projects - time tracking, project milestones, tasks, issues, bug tracking, project documents, deliverables, etc. - are all contained in SharePoint lists. This has several advantages, primarily complete project visibility for our customers, and secondarily, the capability for our staff to work remotely from any location. Beyond that, it also does an excellent job of demonstrating the capabilities of the platform to new customers and provides their project team with some informal on-the-job training.

This arrangement does, however, provide some challenges for frequent travelers such as myself. As I am often in transit from one location to another (usually across the Atlantic) it is commonplace to be without Internet connectivity for long periods of time. This makes it quite difficult to update project-related information, as I am unable to gain access to our SharePoint servers, a major roadblock in my role as project manager. To compensate, I had been relying upon a cobbled-together mish-mash of local files, Outlook folders, and a bit of slapdash code to keep things in synch which, to be honest, wasn't working very well at all.

Enter Contributor from Colligo. A month or so ago the folks from Colligo invited me to test drive version 2.0 of their Contributor product. Billed as an offline client for SharePoint, I had assumed that it's primary purpose would be to keep files in sync between my local folders and SharePoint document libraries. A fine utility, to be sure, but my experience with similar products was that they did a decent job of moving files back and forth but completely lacked any support for SharePoint lists, which is where I do the majority of my work.

I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the product's capabilities in this regard. To set up Colligo to work with SharePoint, you first supply the URL of the site and your login credentials. The product then downloads the site contents and I was encouraged to see that list information was being collected along with document libraries. Once the content has been collected, the application presents the site information using the same basic layout as a WSS v3 Team Site - lists and libraries organized on the left, list contents on the right, with the same WSS list icon, headings, and breadcrumb at the top.

Eric Shupps Eric Alan Shupps eshupps @eshupps SharePoint Cowboy BinaryWave SmartTrack

Choosing to duplicate the SharePoint interface was an excellent decision - the experience of interacting with the list contents is nearly identical to that of SharePoint's web GUI. Say what you will of Microsoft's design, at least the consistency between the two products means there is no learning curve to overcome - anyone who has worked with a SharePoint list will be immediately productive within Contributor. Switching views, uploading documents, sorting columns, and creating new list items is natural and intuitive. Entering a new item in a list brings up a dialog that contains all the list columns (including choice, lookup, and calculated columns) and which looks almost identical to the built-in SharePoint forms.

Eric Shupps Eric Alan Shupps eshupps @eshupps SharePoint Cowboy BinaryWave SmartTrack

After modifying or updating the list contents, you can manually synchronize one or more sites to commit your changes. Alternatively, you can leave Contributor running the background and it will synchronize automatically (you can enable/disable this functionality by right-clicking on the synchronization message in the status bar but I was unable to find any way to modify the automatic synchronization interval).

Naturally, being an offline client, there are a few limitations. You cannot create new views from within Contributor; likewise, it is not possible to alter the list structure (add or remove columns, change column types, etc.) while offline. I also noticed that the list views, which do a good job of display grouping, filtering and summary selections, do not display column totals; that is, if you have applied a total parameter to a list (i.e. SUM the Hours column) the values for this calculation are not displayed.
The pricing for Contributor affordable for both individual and corporate users. At $125 per seat, it's hard to argue with the price/performance equation for this product. The time saved in lost productivity on one cross-country flight pays for the license several times over.

Overall, I think the Colligo team has done an excellent job with version 2.0 of Contributor. I use it exclusively to update list content while on the road, letting it synchronize all of my changes the next time I'm connected to the Internet. This has allowed me to be more productive - especially when flying - and I often use when I am connected as I prefer the WinForms experience over the browser-based approach. If you travel often, or have limited connectivity (i.e. dial-up or second-generation WWAN) and need to interact with SharePoint lists, Contributor may be the answer you've been looking for.

Visit Colligo's web site for more information. A free trial of Contributor 2.0 can be downloaded here.
CORRECTION: The automatic synchronization setting can be adjustd by modifying the followig registry value: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ColligoOfflineClient\Synchronization\ PeriodicSyncInterval. This key determines the number of minutes between sync attempts - the minimum value is 15 and the default is 30.