Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email? All Collaboration Suites Are Not Created Equal

(Part 3 of a 3 part blog series “Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email?” which focuses on Online Collaboration Suites for SMBs. Click here for Part 1, which provides an overview of the online collaboration suite area, and here for Part 2,which provides tips for helping you determine if it’s time to make the move.)

Because the need to collaborate is fundamental to all businesses, many vendors see collaboration suites as an irresistable opportunity to expand their market footprint. As the cloud-based computing model has evolved, both traditional collaboration giants, such as IBM and Microsoft, who have long offered on-premise solutions, and a myriad of cloud-centric players have launched integrated online collaboration suite solutions designed to appeal to SMB needs and budgets.

The SMB Group recently conducted in-depth study, Moving Beyond Email: The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites, to compare eight online collaboration suite vendors, including Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive, Microsoft BPOS, OnePlace, Salesforce Chatter, VMWare Zimbra, and Zoho Business. While all of these vendors agree on the benefits of integrated approach, they don’t always agree on what to include in the core suite. For instance:

  • Some view having their own email client as an essential suite staple; others figure that most businesses are likely to stick with their existing email, and focus on integrating with other email clients. Some take a blended approach. Microsoft BPOS, Zoho Business, VMWare Zimbra, and Google Apps for Business include integrated email as part of their collaboration suites, and also integrate with other POP-3 and IMAP email clients. Meanwhile, Salesforce Chatter and OnePlace do not to provide email, focusing instead on integrating with customers’ existing email solutions. IBM LotusLive and HyperOffice offer their suites with and without email.
  • Vendors are split on whether personal productivity tools (document, spreadsheet and presentation applications) need to be in their suites. Google and Zoho provide them; the rest do not (although Microsoft and IBM offer them separately).
  • Standard storage limits also vary differ by vendor and by plan. For SMBs that store primarily email files, standard limits will usually suffice. But SMBs that store videos, podcasts, photos and other large files need tolook for solutions that include high storage limits or factor costs for additional storage into the equation.
  • Most vendors we examined provide native support Blackberry and iPhone and devices compatible with ActiveSync, and have aggressive plans to extend device support. But Google and HyperOffice currently offer the most comprehensive native mobile support features, adding Android, Windows Mobile and Nokia into the mix.

Beyond this, vendors are distinguishing themselves by adding more value in four key areas: social networking, document management and web conferencing to tap into specific requirements, as shown on Figure 1.

In response to growing demand for and popularity of social media capabilities, vendors such as Salesforce Chatter IBM LotusLive, OnePlace and Google Apps have integrated significant social collaboration capabilities and “look and feel” into their suites. Meanwhile, although all of these vendors offer the basic ability to set up a shared drive to allow team members to post and share files, several go beyond this, providing  a more structured virtual workspace to help people manage and organize documents and facilitate group authoring and version control. In addition, while IBM LotusLive and Microsoft BPOS include web conferencing in their suites, the other players provide web conferencing separately.

Of course, user interface is also critical–and especially for collaboration, because so many people will need to get on board. Users expect that it will be easy to figure out how inbox messages are sorted, how to upload and download files, grant permissions, use tracking controls, etc.  All vendors profess to have an intuitive, easy-to-use and navigate UI–but the judgment about what makes a solution easy-to-use is often subjective. If you’ve been using traditional email for years, you may feel  that Microsoft BPOS (which sports the familiar Outlook and Windows interface) or HyperOffice is spot on, while if you enjoy using Facebook and Twitter, you may  prefer the more social media look and feel of solutions such as Salesforce Chatter, One Place and Google.

Since each workplace is likely to have a mix of people with a range of views on what’s easy and natural. The good news is that Web-based solutions and free trials make it easy for several people in your organization to try and compare a couple of different alternatives before buying to see what works best for most people in the company.

Figure 1: Key Online Collaboration Suite Differentiators




Social Media

  • Contextual gadgets intelligently display information from social networks, business services, web apps, etc. that users can interact with within Gmail.

Document/project management

  • Enables real-time document collaboration, presence, and chat within documents.
  • Supports document sharing of any file type in Google Docs.
  • With Google Sites (in Premier Edition) users can create a central shared location.
  • Video sharing (in Premier Edition).


  • Standard free edition available for unlimited users.
  • Premium edition included email with integrated IM, voice and video chat; 25 GB of email and IM storage.
  • 1:1 voice and video chat included in both editions.
  • Email, contacts calendar integration with third-party Google Apps Marketplace apps.


Social Media:

  • Multi-tiered forums with voting capabilities, ability to subscribe to updates, etc.

Document/Project Management:

  • Hyperslide creates a drive on user’s PC or Mac to manage online files and folders from the desktop.
  • Supports document sharing of any file type with change notifications to streamline collaboration and audit trails which tracks every action taken on a file; group, folder, subfolder, and file level permissions are offered for every user.
  • Project management includes: custom views, tasks importing/exporting, milestones, project summary view, to-do lists for every user, outlook task synchronization, etc.
  • HyperBase database management streamlines data collection with web forms; organizes data in customizable views and tables to analyze/share data; and create simple workflows.
  • Converting emails to tasks to remove clutter from inbox: converts the subject line and body of email to a task, enabling progress tracking, status updates, etc.
  • Tight integration with documents and tasks: attach files from any browser to outbound emails and store inbound email attachments to shred documents; associate emails to tasks, calendar events, contacts, etc.

Web conferenci

Optional web conferencing for up to 1,000 person rooms with real time document collaboration.


  • Global address book integrates with Skype and syncs with Outlook and mobile devices.

IBM LotusLive Engage

IBM LotusLive

Complete Collaboration Suite

Social Media

  • Contact management via “My Network” feature: access to professional profiles; add, import, and sync contacts; groups, tagging, and quick find.

Document/project management

  • Guest accounts enable file sharing, collaboration, and hosted meeting capabilities with anyone inside or outside the organization.
  • Activities project management tool tracks goals, sets dates and priority levels, assigns to-dos, and sends automatic notifications to project members.

Web conferencing

  • Web meetings include app and desktop sharing, file publishing, roster controls, attendee polling and annotation; activities feature and file sharing.


  • “Click-to-cloud capabilities” to access LotusLive services from some on-premise applications.
  • Personal and company calendars with configurable event reminders and workday views.
  • Instant Messaging histories and transcripts with contacts inside and outside company boundaries.

Microsoft BPOS

Document/project management

  • Shared document and meeting workspaces for collaboration and content management; document libraries with version control; single location to share contacts, calendars, tasks.
  • Web conferencing
  • Office Live Meeting: web client support for remote attendees; interactive app/desktop sharing and whiteboard tools; active speaker video switching, multi-party video, and multi-party VoIP audio; Virtual Breakout Rooms to divide conferencing into smaller groups; note-sharing capabilities.


  • Office Communications Online: instant messaging, 1:1 audio and video calling, embedded presence and a “click-to-communicate” experience within SharePoint Online.
  • Authentication by on-premise ADFS (no client sign-on required)
  • Single portal for subscription management, service administration, and service usage.
  • Exchange Online: 25 GB email storage, calendar, and contacts from anywhere, at any time, on desktops, laptops, and mobile device.


Social Media

  • Workplace allows users to share information, view projects, statistics, and recent activity of all members within the workplace.

Document/Project Management

  • Customizable homepage provides overview of team activity, upcoming project and task deadlines, schedules, and updated workplace status.
  • Inbasket is a central hub for information, from updated files to new discussion posts;
  • Inbasket notifications update can be sent directly between users.
  • Version control: uploaded files can be checked out and checked in, enabling team file collaboration and editing; all versions of the file can be tracked.
  • Hierarchical work management system lets users manage their own tasks, and assign tasks to other team members.


  • Unlimited email storage; email integration feature allows users to convert their existing email to Task, Inbasket Note, Pulse or Note.
  • Calendar functionality to see, schedule tasks, view tasks/events that are due or upcoming, and duration of the projects; integration with iCal and Outlook.
  • Functions as a light CRM tool by managing contacts within a list or within specific contact-focused projects.
  • Team Pulse chat and update feature: allows one-to-one instant communication between teammates, and one-to-many instant messages to all members of an account or workplace.

Salesforce Chatter

Social Media

  • Create work profiles and post status updates within Salesforce.
  • “Follow” people, groups, documents, data, and applications inside of Salesforce; updates streamed to users in real-time.
  • Application updates posted automatically into feeds.
  • Integration with Facebook and Twitter through Chatter API.

Document/project management

  • Upload a document to their main feed (for everyone to see), to a group for only the group members to see, or to an object (account, opportunity, etc.) for everyone with access to that object.

Zoho Business

Social Media

  • Zoho Discussions create external and internal communities and Zoho Wikis available separately.

Document/project management

  • Zoho Documents acts as a centralized file repository with version control; enables group collaboration and real-time editing of documents, spreadsheets, etc.
  • Domain and portal creation capabilities.
  • Zoho Projects project management, collaboration and issue tracking software available separately.

Web conferencing

  • Zoho web conferencing available separately.


  • Unlimited email storage.
  • Third party business application integration capabilities; simple integration with any other Zoho business or productivity & collaboration applications.

VMWare Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS)

Social Media

  • Online documents feature allows users to turn documents into collaborative Wiki pages.

Document/project management

  • Email sharing workflow.
  • Briefcase where users can upload, share, and access files anywhere they can access the Zimbra web mail client (including via an iPhone app).

Web conferencing

  • DimDim and Webex integrated directly in the UI to create and manage online web conferencing events.


  • Zimlets enable direct connection to information within messages via productivity-enhancing mash-ups
  • Visual search builders allow queries within attachments.
  • Free tools to plan/execute migrations from Exchange, GroupWise, Lotus Domino and other legacy email systems.

If you are part of an SMB company that is actively considering whether to deploy an online collaboration suite, click on this link and I’ll send you a complementary copy of the full study.

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