Kubi makes you feel at home
BY DAVID E. ESSEX
In response to the wealth of products entering the market and as a service to readers, PM Network is proud to publish a quarterly software review. Each column discusses the latest tools that affect the way managers approach projects. These reviews, while systematic and thorough, are one person's opinion and do not constitute an endorsement or necessarily reflect the views of PMI or PM Network.
Innovative software embeds a discussion board, task list and other team collaboration tools inside your Microsoft Outlook e-mail screen.
Let's face it, when people are inspired to collaborate on a project, their first instinct is to e-mail others to start an ad hoc group discussion. The “Reply to All” button gets leaned on, and pretty soon a draft document or two is passed around for input.
Unfortunately, serious projects quickly can exceed the bandwidth of e-mail's asynchronous, one-to-many, file-challenged communication style. People get behind on reading the latest messages, someone's name is omitted accidentally, or the leader forgets an attachment. The discussion begins to focus on how to communicate, not what's communicated. Before long, professional project managers hanker for dedicated collaboration software such as Documentum's eRoom or will try the collaboration features of their existing applications, such as Microsoft Office and Project.
But what if you could do all this within your old familiar e-mail software? That's the premise of Kubi Software Inc., a scrappy, venture-funded newcomer. Kubi appears to be the only company taking this e-mail-centric approach to the increasing challenges of electronic team collaboration. Curious, I tried the version 1.2 upgrade of the desktop software, Kubi Client, released earlier this year.
Kubi Software was started in 2001 by former employees of the IBM Lotus division that developed QuickPlace collaboration software. They had come to recognize that for true collaboration, existing groupware was too amorphous, general-purpose or document repository-centric (such as Lotus Notes), or, like e-mail, widely used but of limited flexibility. Team collaboration tools like QuickPlace required cumbersome servers and forced members to adopt new paradigms. Kubi's founders understood that teams trying to work remotely over networks usually form around specific projects, and those projects often have documents as their final product (or at least a key project deliverable). They set out, as vice president Mussie Shore says, “to find the sweet spot between document management and e-mail collaboration.”
Whether they succeeded remains open to debate, but one thing is certain: Kubi is different from anything you've seen. First, an existing member of a Kubi “Space” must e-mail you an invitation. When you download the client software, the vendor's server issues a secure, standards-based certificate, then issues a “challenge” that you can answer only from your Microsoft Outlook desktop (or, alternatively, Lotus Notes). All communications among members are kept secret with tight Triple DES (168-bit) encryption. These security safeguards authenticate the identities of team members and keep all communications inside a Kubi Space secure. Automatic data synchronization ensures that members have the latest data whenever they power up e-mail.
Kubi appears to be the only company taking this e-mail-centric approach to the increasing challenges of electronic team collaboration.
Kubi Client first appears next to a set of folders in the standard Outlook directory. Click on the name of the group that invited you, and your Kubi Space opens up in the bottom-right two-thirds of the Outlook screen, with separate windows (called folders) for the daily tools of collaboration: discussion board, contact list, documents, events and tasks, though the mix can vary. A recent-activity window at the top keeps you apprised of the latest news, and a Kubi folders list (not the Outlook one) offers one-click access to panes you would otherwise have to scroll to reach.
Kubi embeds the daily tools you need for secure, online team collaboration inside the Microsoft Outlook e-mail screen.
Even though Outlook is not my usual e-mail program, I found the Kubi test space the company set up for me to be simple to navigate. Discussion threads, contact files and documents were easy to find, view and modify, though I sometimes lost my trail of bread crumbs when new windows opened up. Overt project-management support is minimal, so I give Kubi a middling score in that category, but the program is lickety-split fast, and some apparent quirkiness between my firewall and the Kubi server was sorted out easily. There is no Gantt chart or even a basic timeline (except for the one in Outlook's Journal feature), but teams can achieve a similar effect by sharing their regular project-management files.
Jury of Peers
Kubi is one of just a handful of products employing Napster-like peer-to-peer networking to allow individuals to collaborate without central servers, unlike browser-based tools such as Project.net and eRoom, which are vulnerable when the server goes down. The main rival is Groove 3.0, from Groove Networks Inc., which while not an e-mail add-in, addresses the same audience of computer-savvy, security-conscious, entrepreneurial go-getters who want to throw together remote teams without waiting for their IT bureaucracies. Both do, however, offer optional servers for companies that need centralized administration or security or who want capabilities that are available only with servers, such as automated deployment. And both, it must be said, require you to install and run multi-megabyte client software, a hassle the Web browser tools avoid.
Having also tested Groove, I generally agree with Kubi's take on its competitive advantages. It doesn't force people to learn an entirely new program—though, in fairness to Groove, Kubi's existence inside Outlook doesn't mean it is completely intuitive. Also, Groove has not only a trendy instant messaging (IM)-like interface but an actual IM application which, when combined with alerts, makes the whole collaborative experience more real-time. Groove has many more bells and whistles than Kubi, so I rate the latter as just average in feature richness.
I can't decide if simple equals good in Kubi's case, or just overpriced and overrated. My short time as a member of a small team working on a toy project is probably not a fair test of the software's true power and utility. I suspect that Kubi, when used long and hard every day, is a vehicle that can take teams further than ever along the path to project success. PM
David E. Essex is a freelance journalist specializing in information technology.
SEPTEMBER 2004 | PM NETWORK
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