Group-Office 2.2 Pro Review

The world has changed due to the humble (and sometimes not so humble) creations in the past. It can be argued that NCSA Mosaic changed the world. Some would argue that it was actually Netscape, but whatever the actual case may be, the web browser has in some way changed the way we look at electronic information.

Click for a larger version Since that not so long ago time, many have tried to incorporate more and more into what we view and do with a web browser. The web browser was (in my mind) designed to be a simple way to view information from any computer with a connection to the network. People have also transformed the web browser into a front end tool to other tools, many of which are in fact front ends themselves to yet more tools (e.g. a shopping cart), but many pointy haired bosses wish for the day that the “expensive” PC[1] on the desk can be replaced by a machine that has only a web browser, and therefore saves money in hardware. Software developers and employees also may benefit from a tool that has a central location, can access email, projects, calendars, etc and can be backed up by the company or another central entity so that information loss due to hardware failures is minimized. Many companies claim to have such a software entity, and ome
claim that you do not need the extra software due to the built in tools available now. Group-Office 2.2 is such a software entity that is accessible through a web browser and strives to take all of the independent “business office” applications (email, calendars, etc) off the desktop and onto a central location.

As hinted in the introduction, I must admit that I have worked in industry in the past. I was a Systems Administrator for a large (worldwide) company. I mainly handled the UNIX and networking side of things, and we had another Systems Administrator to handle the internal email, backups and PC software upgrades. I can say that on several occasions we all sat down with the boss(es) and talked about how it would be interesting to pull email, calendars, projects and such from the desktop and put them on a central server. This would be good for a few reasons, but mostly it would be to keep good backups (our employees were all over North America with laptops and desktops, etc and it could be a long time before a backup for them), and have a central location for all projects, reports, etc. The boss(es) of course saw this as a way to purchase minimal hardware (with a huge number of employees, dropping the price of hardware even by say $100 per machine is a huge cost savings overall). In this way the hardware would only need to support a web browser and perhaps a few small applications for specific employees. This was never realized where I was, which had more to do with the sales representatives that wanted to give us a huge package deal for some very large software to do this, but I digress.

Before we get into the software itself, I must say that at first (years ago) I did not see the point, more or less. I felt that email and personal planning and group projects notes and deadlines should be on the users machine, after all, they were the ones with the deadlines, etc. After a few years in industry, this outlook changed slightly as I saw more and more users who were not really disorganized, but burdened with so many applications just to keep track of what they were doing and where they were going, so to speak. I see value in a centralized system, if done right, but of course this is all contingent upon if the end user will actually see it as functional, easy to use, and perhaps even more importantly, a solution to a problem. After all, if using what they have now is not a problem, most people will not switch, even to something better. Habits are hard to break.

So, this brings us to a review of Group-Office 2.2 Pro. From the authors, this is what Group-Office is:

“Group Office is a group-ware suite written in PHP, by Merijn Schering. It is meant to be an on-line collaboration engine for large and small businesses. It boasts an easy to use interface with a powerful and extensive list of features. These feature include E-mail, Project Management, Scheduling, Address Book, Web Site Management, and on-line personal file manager. Group Office can be installed on a SSL secured server, for added security. It integrates with local mail servers using IMAP and POP3 as well as remote servers. Overall, this is the ultimate group-ware suite for any business.”

Requirements for installing Group-Office are:

Linux Operating System
Apache Web Server – 1.3x or 2.0x
MySQL database server
PHP 4.3.x

Installation is straightforward, but with one point of confusion: To install, this is the procedure I took:
Downloaded the package, uncompressed and un-tarred the package, read the INSTALL file located in the
Group-Office directory tree that was created, followed the steps therein. After installation, I loaded
up a web browser and finalized the install, then loaded up Group-Office. I then load up the on line “Help”
to look through it, which quite nicely, is located at the top right of every window in every page of
Group-Office. When I look at it I notice that it has the installation instructions in it (the first part
of the help page is installation and configuration) and then I note that they do not match up with
the installation instructions that I followed with the included INSTALL file in the package. So which
one was correct? Did I do something wrong? Its working, so I _assume_ that it’s alright, but I am now
unsure. This point of confusion needs to be cleared up by the maintainers.

Click for a larger versionMy only other issue with the help file is that it is not user centric. That is to say, the help file includes install
and configure options, but this is true even if you log in under a non administrator account. I can say
from previous experience that when a normal user looks for help, they do not care how you installed
it. Or how the administrator needs to configure it. Really. They do not care if you had to drive to
New Orleans and perform an ancient voodoo ritual in the cemetery at midnight to get the software running,
they just want user specific help with item “A” that they can not get to work they way they want it to.
The install and configuration portion of the on line help should be moved to a different location or made user centric.
And this should be done after it has been corrected so that on line help and the INSTALL file agree. One last note on
the on line help, the module list in the on line help does not match up with the modules which are
installed in Group-Office. For users this could be a major point of confusion, for instance, the help
for “Calendar” is under “Scheduler”. Time and time again in the on line help file I ran into this
naming convention mismatch, or other major errors such as locations of objects in the window. For instance,
the “Application” menu that the help file describes is at the bottom of the page, and it is not labeled
“Applications” anywhere, however, in the help file this bar is supposed to be at the top, and labeled.

OK, back to installation. You are first instructed to move the directory tree under your web
server directory tree (where you want it) and then you need to edit the PHP initialization file.
The defaults are sensible, but it is nice to be able to customize it, and I applaud their good use of
many comments and instructions in the PHP file itself. You need not know PHP to edit this to your
liking. After this step you are instructed to create a new SQL database, create a home directory for
the administrator account and then fire up a web browser and login. After logging in for the first
time you will be presented with a series of steps to perform (through the web browser) and it is mostly
setting up the look and feel and global configuration of the system. (email for new users, default languages,
GO or LDAP database as authentication technique, you can also enable system accounts or local Group-Office
accounts, etc) I would rate the web based install portion of Group-Office very good, and I note here
that on almost every portion they gave actual command line examples of how to perform actions if you
needed to drop to a command line to do something (like set permissions on the Group-Office home
directory if not using system accounts for instance). Overall, with the exception of the conflicting
install notes, installation was easy and hassle free.

After initial installation and setup, users are created. Groups can also be added at this time.
The system should be ready for normal users to login. On the login page are fields for user-name,
password, language, and an option to keep the user logged in until the press the logout button. After
login they are greeted with the Group-Office basic layout. Here is a screen shot using the default theme.

Options available to the user are:
On the top we have: configuration, help, logout
And at the bottom we have: Addressbook, Bookmarks, Calendar, Websites, E-mail, Files, Notes, Projects and Search.
It is interesting to note here that search can is also linked into Google to search the web. I will not go over every last detail of all of the sections that are available, but I will hit the highlights
and give a general overview.

Addressbook is reminiscent of many others that I have seen, in a way the setup
is a little bit nicer than others in that contacts and company contacts are already broken up for you.
Mailing groups can be created so that you can put contacts of your choosing into mailing groups. The user
can also create multiple address books to suit their needs. Basically a contact is pretty straightforward
containing the usual elements (name, address, email, phone, etc). You can also search through all of your
contacts on pretty much any important field.

Bookmarks are for holding web addresses. It could be tedious for someone who has tons of bookmarks,
and an improvement would be an import function to import from a text file. The bookmark feature may seen
trivial, but it could come in handy as the user can set read permissions on their bookmarks
on a per group basis, so that others could just see some or all of the users bookmarks.

Calendar is where you can schedule events. It is pretty much like most calendar programs, and other
people in groups can be added to events. Events can also be setup as recurring, so one could setup
and event on say a Monday morning and check it off as recurring and it would occur every Monday. The
user can also setup a reoccur to-from date so that it can occur say every Monday for the next two months.
Events can also be exported into a .ics format for using them on another platform.

Click for a larger versionI note here that the layout of the calendar is very straightforward, and the user can choose among many
“views” of the global calendar from the main Calendar menu (e.g. day, week, month, etc). Event layouts are
also very straightforward without thousands of countless options to get in the way. I find this kind
of layout very appealing in that you do not need to think too much about all of the options to perform
the operation.

Websites section. This section is where the administrator would modify the Group-Office site itself. It
is one module that would normally be left out for other users on the site. They do, however, give a nice
introduction into the methodology of setting up the site and changing it around in the on line help file.
E-mail is really simple in Group-Office, you can setup POP accounts for each user and they can use them.
Groups and others can also be setup in email. The interface is very simple and straightforward, however,
when editing a message it does open a new window with many options for fonts, colors, etc. I personally
do not agree with the whole color in email or different embedded fonts, as I like to be kind to my
fellow email readers, but the options are there.

Files is a nice touch. The files menu contains a subtree like Meany with icons at the top. The tree
is basically your directory on the server, and you can make folders, upload, delete, add, share, copy,
email, search for, compress and uncompress files. It is simplistic, and each file shown has size,
date modified, name a type. There is a also a tree for browsing and jumping through your file
hierarchy in the left.

The notes section is where you can place a text note of any kind, but you can also associate read a write
privileges to other groups in the system, thereby sharing the note. I note here that the editor for the note
is the same as that of email and projects. You can also associate a due date and responsible person for any
note in the window for editing notes.

Click for a larger versionThe projects section is just what the name implies, projects. You can create projects and associate them with
clients, employees, have start and end dates, status (offer, ongoing, waiting, done, billed), probability (I
like that one), and a budget. Comments can be placed in the project also. After the project is created, the
user can enter data for the project, add notes, and of course set read and write permissions so that others can
read or write to that project. This is probably the second most important feature of the group office (at least
in my mind) and just like the rest of Group-Office it is simple and straightforward.
There is also a search function on it, but essentially it searches Google for you.

I have used the system for a few weeks at the house to write myself notes, store and share files
and access some bookmarks and such from school. I also actually used the projects section to list some of the
projects I had ongoing in my Ph.D. classes. It works nicely, and as I have stated before, in my mind the
strong point of the system is its simplicity and ease of use. The average user should not be confused by this
system and I add also that it is more than intuitive in nature due to the limited number of useless options (if any).
I have used other group ware type suites and have used a combination of many independent programs to do
the same thing (email, projects, calendar, file manager) and I can say that this could prove very useful for
the corporate area. For a company with no such suite, Group-Office can be a simple and easy way to manage projects,
get people using a centralized system where backups can be done easily and have all of the information
for contacts, etc in an SQL database (which could be mined, etc by outside means if needed).

I would like to also note that this is a project on sourceforge, and being as it is mostly written
in PHP, a PHP savvy administrator could tailer this further to their needs if need be. I found little wrong with
the system, besides my harboring on and on about the help file. This could be fixed or ignored.

Group-Office has on line demos and they also have a 30 day trial, see http://www.group-office.com
The Sourceforge project page is at http://sourceforge.net/projects/group-office/
Intermesh can be found at http://www.intermesh.nl.


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29 Comments

  1. 2004-05-17 7:12 pm
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