BrightSuite: Simple but Intuitive

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Is the glass half empty, half full or twice as big as necessary? Software evaluation involves a similar question of perspective. Do limited capabilities make a system bad or merely suited for a particular set of users?


BrightSuite (DCASoft, 832/646-0525, www.dcasoft.com) provides a range of applications that help people work together. They are well designed, easy to use and reasonably priced. But several also are quite simplistic. Prospective buyers need to look closely to decide whether the system meets their needs.


BrightSuite includes 25 applications for communications, work management, document sharing and information access. Users may implement as many as they wish; few will employ the full set. All run through a Web browser connected to either the public Internet or a private network.


Users enter the system through a portal-style home page that can display several applications automatically, plus menus to pick from the full set. Home page formats are customizable for each installation, though they will be the same for all users. The ability to enter applications through windows or menus is typical of BrightSuite: It often gives users several ways to do something.


This is one of the system's major strengths because it increases the chances of working as users intuitively expect. In several days of poking around in BrightSuite, I nearly always could do what I wanted just by trying what seemed logical.


Of the system's applications, the most complete functionality relates to communications. BrightSuite includes its own e-mail client, with typical functions for sending, receiving, archiving, attachments, distribution lists and so on. Other applications support instant messaging, chat groups, discussion lists, electronic meetings, polling, news distribution, graphical bulletin boards and telephone messages.


Electronic meetings let users view a Web page that combines instant messaging, image posting and access to documents, task lists, polls, calendars, directories and other data. It also provides easy access to Microsoft's free NetMeeting software for more advanced sharing. Users can schedule electronic or physical meetings, reserve resources such as conference rooms and send invitations and reminders. These can be delivered by e-mail, instant message or wireless protocols.


Calendaring also is fairly complete. The system maintains separate personal, organization (e.g., department) and company-wide calendars. Each has its own set of events, which can be scheduled in half-hour increments and also can appear on personal to-do lists. Personal calendars can be kept private or shared; specific events within the calendar also can be hidden. Separate calendars hold user travel plans, to check when scheduling meetings. The system can synchronize with Microsoft Outlook by importing and exporting calendar files.


Work management is provided through several applications. Project management lets users define projects with multiple phases and multiple activities per phase. Projects, phases and activities are all assigned to individuals and have budgets, start dates and end dates. The system does not check these values for consistency across levels, however.


Similarly, though a project has a team, the people assigned to lead phases and activities are not necessarily team members, or even registered in the system. This is sometimes useful, but also leaves considerable room for error.


A separate task application lets users create tasks and assign them to teams and individuals. Tasks and task teams are not related to project teams, phases or activities. Again, the person responsible for a task need not be a team member. Tasks have priority, status and due dates, but no budget or start date. Newly assigned tasks show up on calendar to-do lists, but are otherwise separate from the calendar system.


The system also contains a timesheet application that lets users enter up to eight entries per day. Entries are coded by activity and charge number, which are separate from task and project codes. The project system lets users enter work hours directly into phases and activities, but cannot post hours from the timesheets.


The discontinuities among the work management applications are not as bad as they sound. Most organizations would not use them all, or would use different ones for different types of activities. Still, it's unlikely anyone would use BrightSuite for heavy-duty project management.


Document sharing and knowledge access also include multiple applications. The primary document management system maintains a database of documents. These are organized into folders for individuals, teams, projects, departments and even individual meetings. Users can assign attributes to documents and search for them, or, with some overhead, do full-text search of document contents. BrightSuite also can archive old versions of a document and maintain a change log.


As with other components, this is adequate for simple needs but nowhere near the full capabilities of a first-tier content management system. Other document-sharing applications can build a Web photo gallery, generate simple Web pages, create text documents and construct slide shows.


Knowledge access includes a simple help desk with ticket tracking and a rudimentary knowledge base, scheduling and registration for training classes, a "lessons learned" database and a directory of experts. The system also maintains central directories of users, businesses, shared contacts, personal contacts for each user and links to important Web pages.


Perhaps the weakest aspect of BrightSuite is reporting. It has no separate reporting application, and reports within the individual modules are severely limited. But system data are stored in Microsoft Access, SQL Server or MySQL databases, which means the vendor or advanced users can create custom reports fairly easily.


BrightSuite can run in-house on Windows servers or as a hosted service. End users need a Windows computer and Web browser. The minimum system, which provides all applications for up to 20 users, costs $699 to purchase or $69.95 per month hosted. A 500-user system costs $1,999 purchased or $199.95 monthly. At these prices, if the system meets your needs, it is quite a bargain.


The initial component of BrightSuite, the "lessons learned" application, was introduced in 2000. It has more than 100 installations with thousands of users. A more robust version, using .NET rather than ASP technology, is due later this year.


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