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Office 2.0 Conference preview: The flow of work

Four business work-flow applications coming to the Office 2.0 Conference: Central Desktop, Huddle, ShareMethods, and Sosius.

The Office 2.0 conference (more) opens up in San Francisco tomorrow. As it did last year, this show will push the Web 2.0 concept for business . I expect that a lot of activity at the conference will center around groupware and work-flow applicatiosn. In the past few days I've talked to the founders of four companies competing in this space--Central Desktop, Sosius, Huddle, and ShareMethods -- each of which is aiming to use Web 2.0 concepts like simple design, hosted services, and a-la-carte pricing, to knock Microsoft's Sharepoint off its peg, and take on Web 2.0 work-flow stalwart 37Signals' Basecamp as well. Not to mention blocking upstarts from big companies, like Webex's WebOffice, before they can get major traction.

A good Web 2.0 work-flow application integrates task lists, file management with approvals, a calendar, and permission controls. Central Desktop shown here. CNET Networks

It's going to be a tough battle for these products to stand out from each other. The founders I talked to have similar pitches. They talk about low-cost, bottom-up (as opposed to IT-driven) sales, and the fact that they're not trying to replace office products like Microsoft Office or even Web 2.0 suites like Zoho, but rather trying to bring collaboration and workflow to every business with a Web connection.

The one area where these products all need to develop the most is in their integration with these online office productivity tools. At the moment, all of these applications will help you check in and manage files that you create on your PC, and they'll handle approval cycles, discussions, and project plans. But these applications really need tight integration with tools like Google Docs to truly free users from the shackles of local software. That's not just a philosophical perspective--working half online (for work flow) and half on a PC (for productivity applications) is confusing and will slow adoption of these products.

That said, I like all these services. They fill a need that e-mail and wikis can't, and that traditional software is too heavy for. Most of the products look great and aren't over-featured, making it fairly easy for users to get up to speed on them.

The differences between these applications are not immediately obvious...

. A mature Web-based work-flow application that's getting a cosmetic refresh this week. Central Desktop allows its customers to do their own branding on the service, so end users may never know that the work-flow application they're using wasn't developed by the company they work for. This product interacts nicely with e-mail: Project notes can be sent to users electronically, and people can reply directly to messages to update the system. The service is beginning to integrate Web-based productivity tools--it uses the excellent EditGrid for a spreadsheet, but the note-taking application is still bare bones. This one is aimed for the mid-market, not small business.

ShareOffice, by ShareMethods. Uses the emerging OpenSAM spec (see below) to integrate other Web 2.0 apps into its workflow product. Currently supports iNetWord (word processor), EditGrid (spreadsheet), (presentation), Persony (screen sharing), and Jotlet (calendar). Also has very well-developed version that work as a SalesForce AppExchange service. No free version, though.

Huddle. This is a very well-designed group framework that has been built with a philosophy like Ning, the social network platform: The concept is that once you join into any Huddle workspace, you don't have to sign on to particpate in others. Nice for consultants who have multiple customers on Huddle--providing those customers are Huddle users, too. Huddle is also a big supporter of OpenSAM, although unlike ShareOffice, the applications aren't yet integrated into it.

Sosius. Similar to Huddle, with a single sign-on system and a clean design. Sosius is being pitched as a work/life workspace--the thinking being clubs and families need to coordinate calendars and to-do lists, too. This service launches on Thursday and has one big advantage: Its free version has a generous 1GB of storage per user, and there are no limits to the number of users who can participate in a group. Premium versions will offer more storage, support, and security.

These products are evolving rapidly, but at the moment, for clarity of purpose and ease of use, I recommend Huddle and Central Desktop. Or Basecamp.

Work is complex enough. You want a simple and clean interface on a work-flow application. Huddle shown here. CNET Networks

As I said, all these products are designed to help you manage your work. They're not productivity application suites themselves like Zoho, ThinkFree, or Google Docs. In fact, all the vendors are hoping their systems will become layers on top of those suites. To that end, ShareMethods and Huddle are strong advocates for the emerging OpenSAM spec that defines how online applications interoperate. In fact, ShareMethod's CEO, Eric Hoffert, is also co-founder of the OpenSAM initiative.

If you want to learn more Office 2.0 interoperability and you'll be at the Office 2.0 conference, please come to my panel, "The New Platforms," at 9 a.m. Friday.