Working together: 3 new team collaboration tools

Flow, Glip and Slingshot try to enhance the ability of teams to converse and collaborate using a variety of tools.

The concept of how we collaborate is changing. Better tools are being developed that help workgroups put together documents, quickly schedule meetings and chat with each other.

When business first started operating online, collaboration was largely done via Internet-connected email, where messages could be sent in minutes. But these days, an overloaded inbox can be the enemy of quick collaboration. Then, starting in the '90s, instant messaging via AIM, Skype, Yahoo and others became a quicker alternative to sending emails. But it still wasn't a complete collaboration package.

Today's collaboration environment includes tools for text chats, bulletin boards, video conferencing, screen sharing and scheduling meetings. There are dozens of workgroup collaboration tools these days, starting with video conferencing (such as Citrix GoToMeeting and Cisco WebEx) and moving into more sophisticated internal social networking setups (such as Yammer, SocialText and Jive).

Among these are a number of lightweight products that offer quick and near-real time collaboration. Some have been around for several years (such as FMYI) and some have come onto the market in the past year.

This review looks at three of the newcomers: Flow, Glip and Slingshot. While all have some things in common -- all three seek to enable collaboration and can be used either on desktops/laptops or on mobile devices -- they all do somewhat different things in the collaboration space. Indeed, you might want to purchase more than one of them to handle your needs.

I tried them out them on a small network using Windows PCs, Macs and iPhones. I looked at what these tools offer small workgroups (up to about 20 people), whether they are easy to use, how potent they can be in terms of lessening the number of emails you need to deal with and which particular circumstances they are best suited for.


Flow is about tasks, and the more that you can concentrate on a series of well-defined tasks the more productive you will feel with it. It comes from MetaLab, which also makes Peak, a workgroup collaborative tool that connects various social cloud accounts.

Flow has versions for the Web, iOS, Android and the Mac (this last requires OS X 10.7 or later). The Web client offers a menu on the left while the rest of the workspace can show a calendar, tasks or a threaded conversation stream (with an input field at the bottom) using either a one- or two-column format.


Flow's menu is on the left while the workspace shows the calendar and/or tasks; a third column holds a threaded conversation stream.

Click to view larger image.

You define a task, schedule when it is due and who is helping complete it, and upload documents either from your own computer or from a connected Dropbox account. While this is handy, because Flow concentrates so much on tasks, some things just don't fit. For example, tasks can be scheduled for a specific day but not for a specific time within that day, making it difficult to schedule meetings among task participants.

The service is extremely easy to learn and use. When you complete the signup process, you are brought into a series of simple on-screen tutorials that highlight the menus and prompts needed to get started with creating lists and tasks. The screen layouts are clean and consistent across the Web and mobile clients.

One of Flow's strengths is in its numerous notification options. You can receive a daily email digest of your tasks, change the notification settings to hourly or not at all, and toggle between a dozen different activities such as being notified if you are mentioned or if a new task is assigned. One downside is that these notification settings can't be accessed in the mobile client.

Another nice touch is an optional text editor for the body of your task messages that works like GitHub's Flavored Markdown editor, which lets you add HTML links, simple numbered lists and blocks of code. If you mistakenly delete a task (the icons are small and I found it was too easy to click on the wrong one), you can restore it if you realize your mistake within a few hours.

On the Web version, some image file contents (such as PNGs) can be previewed in the dashboard; others (like TIFFs) you'll need to click on to view. On the mobile version, no file previews are available, possibly to save screen real estate. In either case, you can't edit attached documents -- you can just view them. Each item in the task list can be "liked" by each team member, similar to Facebook likes.

Teams have three different access rights: member, guest and admin. Team owners set these up when they create your account. Guests can only view the particular content that they are explicitly invited to see. Admins can change the access rights at any time. And members have full read/write rights but can't change others' access rights.

Flow has six different pricing plans, all of which are billed on an annual basis. The Team plan allows up to 10 people to share 10GB of storage and five different workspaces for $49 per month. There are additional plans that can go to $250 a month or more. The first 30 days of any account are free, with no need to supply a credit card.

Bottom line

If you don't need to schedule meetings, or already use something else such as Outlook, then Flow is a good choice. Depending on your usage, it could also be cheaper than Glip.

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