For many businesses, investing in a server-based communication and collaboration products, such as Microsoft Exchange, is the inevitable outcome of growth and success. Of course, that also means hiring a reseller or your own IT guy to maintain and upgrade the system.
Fortunately, the advent of online applications offers an alternative, such as several robust Web-based services that handle your business' communications needs without the expense and complexity of buying and maintaining your own dedicated hardware or software. This not only relieves the burden (and worry) of supporting an in-house solution, it also makes it seamless for far-flung employees to use the system or to give road warriors full access to their e-mail, calendar and contacts from any PC anywhere.
Untie the Knots
One of the best such services is BlueTie. The basic offering delivers business-class e-mail (with a 1GB mailbox for each employee) for just $2.99 per month per employee. The full suite, which includes e-mail, shared calendars, shared contacts, shared files, instant messaging and a task-list function, starts at $7.99 per person per month.
You can by extra e-mail or file storage as needed, and buy individual services on a case-by-case basis (for example, if some of your employees only needed e-mail and chat, not the full set of features).
Even more appealing than the price is the presentation: BlueTie is easy to set up, and the inviting interface (with its self-explanatory icons) will have your employees using it in no time. If you've used Outlook, you know how to use BlueTie. Should you need help, there's a downloadable Getting Started Guide, or you can choose the complete User Manual.
There's also online training that you can work through at your leisure. If that's still not sufficient, or if you encounter a problem, phone and e-mail support is available 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Eastern) Monday through Friday. (We called on a Thursday afternoon and got right through to a live technician, with no hold time whatsoever.)
Just 10 minutes to Set Up
Getting going with BlueTie is quick and easy. The first time you log on after signing up, a wizard walks you through setting up your business' account, including setting a global junk mail filter level, time zone info, security settings (password strength and shelf life, session time-out clock, and so on). You can then quickly set up each person's account by entering his or her name, username, password, e-mail address and the level of service that person will receive. The system then generates a welcome e-mail to that person with a link to the BlueTie service.
If you have a registered domain name for your business, you can set each employee's e-mail to reflect that (that is, firstname.lastname@example.org). If your business doesn't yet have a Web domain, you'll be issued e-mail addresses that look like username.enterprisename@BlueTie.com. At any time, you can switch to your own domain and loose the "@BlueTie" appendage.
When each person signs on for the first time, he or she will be prompted to set up individual preferences (time zone, calendar view default settings, e-mail signature and so on). Employees can optionally route their personal POP e-mail into BlueTie, so they don't have to check multiple Webmail accounts.
In our trial, setting up the business and user accounts took just 10 minutes, and the response time over a broadband connection was impressively fast. At no point did we experience the sluggishness associated with early Web apps (thanks to the AJAX platform on which BlueTie is built), and test e-mails we sent arrived in our BlueTie inbox seemingly instantaneously.
You can access BlueTie from the Internet Explorer, FireFox, or Movilla browsers (support for Apple's Safari is promised for late 2006). You'll be presented with a clean user interface that's easy to navigate. Icons for My Day (at-a-glance view akin to the "Outlook Today" screen), E-mail, Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, IM, Files, Enterprise (administration tools) and Google line the top of the page. On the left, a column shows at a glance which people from your group are currently online, and it gives quick access to your contact list and shortcuts to create a new e-mail, event, task or contact.
The "First Available" feature in BlueTie's calendaring module lets you find the next time slot when all attendees can meet.
(Click for larger image).
E-mail and Calendar Features
The e-mail view shows your folder trees on the left, with a resizable preview pane below your Inbox listing front-and-center. BlueTie employs SpamAssassin on its servers, as well as the company's own Bayesian filtering, to cut down on spam (you can set the level of stringency). Mail is also scanned for viruses before reaching your inbox.
The Calendar function is particularly versatile. Click on New Event, set the date and time and then invite attendees from your contact list. One slick feature not found in Outlook is BlueTie's "First Available" feature: Indicate the length of your meeting and the people you need to be there, and the program will check their calendars and show the next time slot all of them are available to meet.
We were impressed with the shared calendar features, too. You can set three levels of access to each person's calendar: Free-Busy (which simply shows when an individual is available or not, with no details about their actual meetings), Read-Only (where you can see his or her meetings, but not change them or add others), or Full Sharing (where you have rights to add or remove entries). BlueTie offers a color-coded calendar view, which let you see at a glance whom is available to meet and when.
Share Files, Shared Thoughts
Another welcome feature is the ability to upload files (both shared and personal) to the service, so you (and in the case of shared files, others) can access them from any PC. Each person gets 1GB of file storage, and you can purchase up to 9GB more for each individual.
The Tasks icon gives you access to a to-do list. If you assign a task a due date, it will automatically show up on your calendar. Next year, BlueTie is planning to add the ability to assign tasks to others, complete with an e-mail notification when the individual marks that task as complete (or if the due date passes without completion). The IM app has all the instant-messaging features you would expect, including which of your cronies are currently online.
If you like the idea of a Web service but don't want to leave the familiar environs of Outlook, BlueTie offers DirectConnect, a free downloadable utility that replicates mail, calendar, contact and task entries from Outlook to BlueTie. This lets your employees use Outlook while they are at their main PC, but log onto BlueTie when working remotely, with all their critical data available either way.
If your business needs a communications and collaboration platform that's easy to use and easy on your budget, BlueTie offers tremendous value and is worth a serious look.
Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.
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