Online collaboration is one of the best uses of the Web, and project management is where it can really shine. I thought it would be worth taking a look at a product called OfficeZilla to see how well it stacks up against Basecamp and Teamwork, two established leaders in the online project management space. The results may surprise you.
Unlike Basecamp, OfficeZilla is free. That might suggest that it's underpowered when compared to the services that charge, but the differences are so minor you wouldn't find any reason not to use OfficeZilla. In fact, I think it's better-suited for small businesses with smaller projects than Basecamp, thanks to its simpler design.
The core of OfficeZilla revolves around modules. These are specific features of the service that you can custom tailor to match what you're using it for. When setting up your group, you'll be asked which ones you want included. They range from bible search (used primarily for bible study groups) to calendars and chat rooms.
Although OfficeZilla is free, the company charges for premium modules. So far, there are only a handful of them listed, like calendar filtering by groups, admin stats, and an enhanced user activity stream. They're pricey at $10 per month, and after reading about a few that are still being developed, I'm not convinced they're all that useful. I think Basecamp has it right and OfficeZilla should follow suit by charging a standard, basic fee for access to all its services each month.
After picking my modules, I started diving into OfficeZilla, adding a project, finding team members to perform tasks, and monitoring their progress. Adding a project couldn't be any simpler or more intuitive. From the project manager pane you can create a new project, give it a name, and input a description in just a few seconds.
Once created, you get a slew of options to start building out into a workflow. I started adding tasks to the project, and each new one brought me to a special task page which let me add notes and messages to other team members or upload files related to it. I would have liked to be able to track progress and see how far along my team was in completing that task--a feature that's conspicuously lacking from OfficeZilla--but the message platform is the next best thing. It allows other team members to annotate what they've done so far, which can keep you from having to send an e-mail or IM to check in.
One of OfficeZilla's most powerful features is its knowledge base module. It's a simple feature at first glance, but it can be an extremely functional tool if someone at a company spends time inputting relevant information.
But to do so, it's a bit more complicated than it needs to be. When I started creating categories in the Knowledge Base, I was forced to use the admin panel to add them instead of from the knowledge base itself. Once I had created a category from the admin panel, I could then go back to the Knowledge Base module and start adding tutorials and other information with the help of a full text editor, but it would have been nice to do it from within the tool's word processor. It lets you bold or italicize text, as well as increase or decrease font size and change alignment. It's basically like having Zoho Writer built into the module.
OfficeZilla is all about simplicity and trying to get you to do more with less. When uploading files or creating a to-do list, that's more than welcome, but for a company that has a detailed project with bundles of cash riding on it, that simplicity may prove to be a hindrance.
For example, OfficeZilla's Directory module which is a catalog of all project participant records organized by their name and job title, is useful if you want to quickly send a message to a team member, but it comes up short when you want to get an overview of your team's activity. There's no real-time data to know what they're working on, and you'll need to search through the various modules to see if they've left a message indicating the progress they've made.
Worse, and perhaps the most frustrating feature of OfficeZilla, is its generic status update tags. When a task is created in the Project Manager, it's labeled "Not Started." Once the project manager or someone with access to modify the task starts working on it, they'll need to click on the current status pane and check a special box to note to others that work has begun. Until it's complete, the project status is listed as "In Progress." Once again, there's no indication given about how far along the project is, and simply saying "In Progress" doesn't help any project manager know, for sure, how close to complete it really is. Is it 20 minutes from completion or 20 days? "In Progress" says nothing.
Where OfficeZilla gets it right is in team communication. As I noted above, the site allows users to send messages in the Project Manager screen, but it also includes chat rooms, forums, and the option to send private messages to authorized employees. All of the options were superb, and I found that communicating with other team members couldn't have been easier. In fact, I'd say that OfficeZilla's communication platform is easily the best I've ever used in a collaboration service.
The final verdict
There are times when I'm in desperate need of a project management tool and using a service like Basecamp, one of the most powerful tools on the Web, is overkill. For those times, I would turn to OfficeZilla because it's simple to add a project and get down to the business of completing it.
But if I was running an organization that had a variety of projects that are not only time-sensitive, but complex and need to be monitored at every level, I wouldn't recommend OfficeZilla. The collaboration tool doesn't provide enough real-time information or tracking data to make it usable for mission critical projects.