Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 3
Column Tag: Review
by Lesa Snider
Peer-to-peer Content and Knowledge Management for Panther
What do you get when you cross iChat, Safari, an RSS news reader, Microsoft Word, Adobe GoLive, and a handful of other popular productivity tools? You get Near-Time Flow; an extremely fascinating and powerful content/knowledge management, collaborative workflow solution for Panther.
Released this past June post-WWDC, Flow is virtually impossible to categorize as a single piece of software. After spending some quality time with it, though, you come to understand that it is part WYSIWYG web editor, RSS aggregator, word processor, outline tool, email client, and then some. This unique, hypertext-based software is targeted to both individuals and work groups of any size. It's an authoring tool, a gathering tool, an organizational tool, a collaboration tool... it should have a big red S emblazoned on its box!
Figure 1. Your Flow Space lists Folios, Shared Spaces, other Flow users within those spaces, and available servers.
Creating, gathering, and organizing
Life within Flow happens in two windows simultaneously, metaphorically dubbed Flow Space and Folio. From within your Flow Space you can create multiple Folios specific to your projects that can be shared or kept private. Once you've created a Folio, you can add any type of file by dragging it into the Pages pane of the Folio window where everything appears in an orderly list that can be arranged to suit your needs. Add RSS feeds, web pages, images, and other documents and enjoy the bliss of managing, viewing, and commenting on them all in one convenient place, within a single interface. It even dutifully alerts you when an updated RSS feed is available by placing a blue dot beside it. To gain an appreciation of how easy and powerful the Folio metaphor is, visit Near-Time's web site and watch the QuickTime movies illustrating several of Flow's key features.
You can also create new content in either text or HTML format, yielding a native Flow document. I found the Ruler option to be quite handy in this process, though text formatting is handled via a drop-down window similar to--and as inconvenient as--that found in Keynote. You can link content pages together by simply dragging them from the Pages list to the Content area of another. Add web pages and RSS feeds by dragging the URL straight into your Folio from a browser's address bar.
Figure 2. From within a Folio you can view content assets such as live URLs and more.
Sharing and publishing
Not only does Flow allow you to gather and organize all of your project documents, it gives you the ability to share and publish them out to others as well; Flow users or not. These options include:
- sharing Folios through Rendezvous or other internal network
- sharing Folios through Real-Time's server with other Flow users (available for free for one month after purchase, then $29.95 per year thereafter)
- publishing Folios in web site form to an iDisk or other server
Once a Folio is shared, all files--even those of external origin--are transferred back and forth between the Flow users within a Shared Space. The touch of a button activates a manual sync, though Flow checks periodically and notifies you of any content updates with the aforementioned appearance of blue dots. Unfortunately, a major flaw showed up during testing when Flow became confused as to who had edited the last version of an Excel spreadsheet, and caused both my colleague and I to lose changes the other had made. Similar losses occurred with comments made on an Adobe InDesign file. The sharing process worked flawlessly with native Flow documents, RSS feeds, and web pages.
Flow supports version tracking on all content through a convenient date/time stamp bar at the bottom of each Folio document. Not only can you see when a document was edited, marked, or commented upon, but you can also see who made the change. I was impressed to find that Flow also accounts for differences in time zones between users in a Shared Space while testing its collaboration features with my colleague on the East coast. The Folio workspace itself would benefit from more standard controls for text editing (bold, italic, etc.) instead of the drop-down menu, as well as some visual cue as to what mode one is in, especially when invoking changes. I kept forgetting to click the Make Changes button at the bottom of my Folio window while trying to add comments to a document.
The publishing aspect of Flow is effective, allowing the creation of visually pleasing project web sites with a single button-press, enabling the sharing of Folios between those who use Flow and those who do not. We experienced a few problems when publishing a Folio to an iDisk: native Flow documents, linked URLs and RSS feeds uploaded flawlessly; however, attached files (Excel spreadsheets, InDesign documents, etc.) were included only part of the time--sometimes they would be uploaded to the server and sometimes not. To Flow's credit, it gleans iDisk data from your System Preferences; however, you must manually enter your iDisk password. Flow failed to snag it on both my and my review partner's system.
Smart Folios, blogging, and searching
Another impressive Flow feature is the Smart Folio option. By creating rules you can automatically and dynamically aggregate information from various sources. The concept is similar to Smart Playlists in iTunes and is at least as useful, especially as a project expands both in size, and number of team members involved.
If you are interested in the ever-expanding world of blogging, you will find Flow's options to create content and publish to Moveable Type, TypePad, Wordpress, or Blogger extremely useful. Simple, one-button uploads to your blog may be a compelling reason to give Flow a try.
Flow's sophisticated Search feature performed flawlessly. The best way to appreciate it is to open an existing Flow document (e.g. the included User's Guide), and then query it using a search panel that looks suspiciously like the one in Panther's Finder. It then creates a brand new page with all the results listed, highlighting the search terms as hyperlinks back to the appropriate section of the documentation. One can easily imagine how publishing this page to other Flow users would facilitate work on specific aspects of any project.
As a single, individual project management and authoring tool, Flow largely lives up to its claims. You can easily and effectively collect and manage the assets of a particular project within the Flow Space and Folio metaphors. As long as you're working with assets that Flow understands and can edit, it is also an effective collaborative tool, making the sharing of project documents between development teams and departments much easier than via email.
Flow's kryptonite, if you will, seems to be only when you mix in files that the program does not understand and must handle as attachments--that's where it became less reliable. The program is priced to be accessible to anyone who has serious collaborative needs, and is powerful enough to be at the top of the line of a new category of productivity software, once a few of the inconsistencies are worked out. To get a full appreciation for what Flow can do, you will need to climb a significant learning curve, though the trip is worth it to access the software's power for your projects.
You can try it for 30 days for free by downloading the trial version from the company's web site at http://www.near-time.com. The cost for a single seat is $99.90, and a ten user license is $859.95, a respectable value to be certain.
Lesa Snider is the owner of Flying Fingers (www.flyfingers.com), a creative new media firm specializing in web site visibility. She provides private and corporate training and consulting on web site marketing techniques, interface design, and search engine optimization, as well as a variety of design disciplines.