Solution Watch » Brian Benzinger Solution Watch surveys the bleeding-edge of the productivity world, reviewing and providing in-depth walkthroughs of today's best services all day and every day. Tue, 09 Oct 2007 04:33:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Forget Paper and Sign Contracts Online With Tractis Tue, 09 Oct 2007 04:33:36 +0000 Brian Benzinger TractisTractis, which recently came out of private beta, allows you to negotiate and execute worldwide legally binding contracts online. Tractis’ focus is making e-commerce more safe by providing not only digital signing of contracts, but conflict resolution and micro-insurance services. Today, they officially open their doors for Spain and plan to eventually make their service available worldwide. Tractis is useful for all types of contracts, whether you’re selling an item on eBay, providing creative services over the Internet, or sending a non-disclosure agreement. It allows anyone to easily organize, collaborate, and sign contracts online, all in one place. Digital signing of contracts is a very interesting space with only a handful of companies in it. EchoSign is one company offering the digital signing of documents online which I have used numerous times with excellent results. DocuSign is another company which recently received $12.4 million in funding for its electronic signature service.

Aside from signing contracts, Tractis also provides a database of contract templates which anyone can save to their account and use for free. Right now you’ll find non-disclosure agreements, design service agreements, and contracts for the selling of goods. (Goodbye lawyers!) But where do these contacts come from? The answer is other Tractis users. In your account, you can create contract templates and make them publicly available for others to use. This is a great idea and I definitely see the value in it, however, I can’t help but feel uneasy knowing they are from users that are likely not lawyers. (Lawyers, come back!) On the plus side, templates are open for all to edit, rate, and comment on. Also, Tractis plans to roll out a reputation system in the next few months that would allow users to rank other Tractis users, according to Business 2.0 Magazine.

Tractis Templates

Additionally, Tractis is a collaborative environment for your contracts. Invite your whole team and the people you are sending contacts to. Start a contract from scratch or from a template, make changes, revert to older versions, and add comments. When you’re done preparing the contract, invite your client to review and digitally sign. If the client isn’t in agreement, you can discuss and edit the contract right then and there with them. One thing to keep in mind is the person signing the contract will need a Tractis account. This is said to be for identity protection reasons, but I’d personally prefer sending a contract to anyone, whether they have an account or not. Also, as of now, each digital signature will cost you 1 Euro, so be sure to increase your balance before sending off a contract to a client.

What’s more important, are contracts sent using Tractis legally binding? Even now I have clients questioning the legality of signing a document over EchoSign, even though E-Signatures were legalized in the year 2000 (see, E-Signature Act). I will admit the concept does seem questionable, but Tractis does guarantee that contracts are not only legally binding, but valid worldwide. At the same time, it’s hard to trust a guarantee when pages like contact, about, and terms of use are missing from the website. (I believe the content did exist during the private beta, but seem to have disappeared at public launch – oops!) Let’s hope they get that fixed quick! (Update: I’ve spoken with David Blanco, founder of Tractis, and have been told that they are working on new content and translated versions for the website.)

Tractis Contract

Working with Tractis is much like typing a document in a web-based word processor, or a contract focused Writeboard with basic contact management. You create and edit contracts in a WYSIWYG editor, invite users to collaborate, and eventually save for signing. And this works great, except my biggest complaint is that you cannot upload existing contracts that you might have, something that EchoSign does very well. Tractis also lets you create groups of people, find new people on Tractis, download vCards, and add people to your team. And what would a collaborative application be without being able to customize your interface to match your company? Nothing too fancy – you can change colors and replace the Tractis logo with your company logo.

As I brought up earlier, Tractis also allows you to create templates which can be used to start off new contracts. You can browse the public database of templates, edit as needed, and add them to your account for easy access. Very helpful, but they are no more than basic documents of legal agreement containing filler spaces and strings like “(Your Company Name).” They work fairly well, but one slight annoyance is having to replace thirty or so “(Your Company Name)” tags in a template by hand. The templates would be much more useful if there was a way to somehow mass replace a string with a new value, or perhaps create a custom markup or generate a form that fills in the information for you. Either way, the templates do save a lot of time, not to mention possible lawyer fees.

Tractis - Signing a contractSigning a contract with Tractis is a bit more involved than using a service like EchoSign, but Tractis has decided to take extra measures to verify the identity of a signer. When signing a contract with Tractis, you are to provide a digital certificate. Now, to be honest, I don’t expect the average person to have a digital certificate, let alone know what one is. So, for those of you who don’t know what a digital certificate is, it’s an electronic document issued by a certificate authority that basically contains some data proving you are who you say you are. As of now, Tractis is only accepting digital certificates issued by a group of pre-selected Spanish certificate authorities, but plan to connect with more authorities wordwide as they go. (Current accepted authorities – translated by Google) Because of these measures, Tractis can confirm the identity of you and the signer and offer their planned services of micro-insurance and dispute resolution. (Certainly a huge task) Once you’ve got a certificate, you’re set to continue to the next hurdle of having Java 1.6 installed on your machine which allows Tractis to upload and verify your certificate. Sorry Mac users, you can’t sign because Mac’s latest Java version is 1.42 – unfortunate, I know.

Once you get passed having a digital certificate and Java 1.6 on your machine, you can finally sign a contract. It’s all simple from here on and you just have to check the box stating that you agree and click sign. It verifies the form and submits your signature and lets contract participants know. I feel the whole process of signing a contract may be a bit much for the average person, but it certainly does add a sense of trust and security to the signing, which is exactly what Tractis was aiming to do in making e-commerce more safe. Although, I’m not sure I’d want a client of mine to go through all of that. Fortunately, I’ve been told that there are plans for additional methods of authentication and signing, including “Accept/Clickwrap” agreements, but will strongly recommend the use of digital certificates.

Even though Tractis is out of private beta and officially launched for Spain today, they still have a ton of work ahead of them. I expect it will be a while until Tractis is available for U.S. users, but I definitely look forward to using Tractis when it becomes available. What I like most is the public database of templates and the ability to collaboratively edit a contract before making an agreement, features Tractis’ competitors do not have. I don’t necessarily trust the public templates just yet, but they are nice to have around as reference and to act as a starting point. I also found the signing process to be a bit much for my line of work (creative services), although my opinion on that would change if “Accept/Clickwrap” agreements are implemented. I just wouldn’t want to have my clients create an account on Tractis just to sign a contract and then have to deal with providing a digital certificate. I do, however, see the value in requiring digital certificates when handling large transactions, such as buying a car from a random user on eBay. In all, I feel Tractis is building an impressive service and I hope to use it when it’s ready worldwide. Until then, I’ll stick with EchoSign and the old-fashioned way of signing contracts (pen and paper).

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Jump Start Websites With Jumpchart Wed, 05 Sep 2007 16:15:14 +0000 Brian Benzinger JumpchartDiagrams play a very important role in planning and communicating a site’s architecture. They help you visualize a project before developing and piecing things together, leading to smarter design decisions. Unfortunately, for a client, Information Architecture and diagrams can be very intimidating, not to mention appear impractical. Because of this, many web teams end up leaving a client out of the whole process and resort to other means of learning what they want on their website. The end result? A mess of emails, Word documents, links to websites, and so on. Jumpchart, currently in private beta, hopes to put an end to all of this.

Jumpchart provides an easier way to plan and visualize content with clients. Forget wireframes and flowcharts and instead allow clients to browse through an interactive sitemap with pages and sub-pages of content. Let them illustrate their needs and add all the content you need in one simple location. Meanwhile, discuss and make changes as needed until the content planning stage is complete. I don’t necessarily see Jumpchart as a way to replace your existing Information Architecture process, but I do feel it makes a nice addition by allowing you to quickly gather and perfect content with groups of people. Invite the whole team: designers, developers, copywriters and clients; and make better decisions easier and faster.

Jumpchart Site Builder

Jumpchart’s interface feels in many ways like a content management system or website builder. You create a site, add pages and sub-pages, fill in content, and attach files to pages just like you would in a website builder. Jumpchart also produces a preview website, or as they put it, an interactive sitemap, which you can browse through and send to clients. You can even down the entire website in pure XHTML and CSS. You cannot, however, change the design of the website that Jumpchart creates – not a major loss considering the client only needs something to help visualize the end result. Users can leave comments on pages, and if permitted, edit content and reorder the site’s navigation. Additionally, each site gets its own RSS feed containing information about recent content changes, page additions, and navigation reordering by other users.

Jumpchart Content Editing

Jumpchart uses Textile Markup Language for editing content, but something tells me my clients won’t want to learn a language to fill in their own content. They’d rather use a WYSIWYG editor. That’s what the average person is familiar with and that’s what will allow them to copy and paste content without losing formatting. My preference? I’m a Textile kind of guy, so I’m happy with their decision. Besides, it gives Jumpchart more flexibility. To explain, after uploading an image, Jumpchart lets you insert that image in your content by adding (image_name). Additionally, linking to other pages within Jumpchart can be done by inserting, "Page Link":[page_name]. Again, maybe a little much to expect a client to write out. You can also build basic non-functional forms with Jumpchart’s custom syntax, enabling you to easily mock-up contact forms, registration forms, login forms, or whatever you may need. You just type out the form elements as they are: [input], [checkbox], [textarea], [submit] and so on.

Just last week, Jumpchart introduced a new feature, Snippets. When you create a site snippet, you are essentially creating content that is meant to be repeatedly used throughout a site. For example, you can create a snippet for a newsletter form and include that form on any page with the syntax [[newsletter_form]]. It saves you from typing the same thing over and over again and also makes it easier for other collaborators. It also enables you to add blocks of content to pages which can be globally changed throughout the site by editing a single snippet.

Jumpchart Sample Preview SiteWhat I like most about Jumpchart is the simplicity in the product. It helps save time collecting and formatting content and gives clients something to visualize before having the real thing. However, I don’t feel Jumpchart is the best solution for large scale websites. It works well for small and medium sized sites that require a minimal amount of content planning, but if you have a site containing possibly hundreds of pages, things could get dicey. Jumpchart can improve on this by allowing me to search or filter through pages and perhaps offer a one page dashboard showing recent activity. Maybe even collapsible page navigation would help save room.

On the same topic, check out WriteMaps to create and share simple sitemaps online. has more on Jumpchart.

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Taking MyMileMarker For A Spin Tue, 10 Jul 2007 19:21:26 +0000 Brian Benzinger MyMileMarkerStill tracking your car mileage with spreadsheets and scrambling to gather old gas receipts? Try MyMileMarker, a new service by Sidebar Creative that allows you to track and analyze your car mileage online through a browser or mobile phone. It’s extremely easy to use and unlike some services which require you to record every mile you drive, MyMileMarker only asks that you record when you fill your vehicle with fuel. After a few fill-ups at the gas station, MyMileMarker calculates your averages and predicts future mileage and costs.

Getting started with MyMileMarker is as simple as creating an account (OpenID support) and listing each vehicle that want to track. MyMileMarker then creates individual pages for each vehicle where you can log your mileage and view your history. You are also able to record your mileage on a mobile phone using MyMileMarkers mobile friendly website or Twitter, enabling you to access your account from any location. Adding a record with the mobile interface works much like the browser-based version, but if you are a Twitter user, you can very quickly log your mileage by sending a one-line Twitter message. Just add the official MyMileMarker Twitter user as a friend and send a direct message in the format, “D mymm [miles] [gallons] [price]“, and MyMileMarker will handle the rest – even make a guess at which car you filled up based on the mileage you entered.

MyMileMarker Add Record

When adding an entry, MyMileMarker requires that you fill in your vehicles current mileage, the amount of fuel you filled it up with, and the cost of fuel per gallon. There are also a few optional questions that MyMileMarker asks so it knows when you last changed your oil and filled your tank. Furthermore, MyMileMarker is location based, so when filling in your information, it will either ask for either miles and gallons or kilometers and liters depending on where you’re from. You can pick your location in the account settings area. Lastly, be sure the information you enter is correct the first time because you can only remove the latest record from your history. In other words, if you make a mistake three records back, you will have to remove the last three records and add them back again just to correct the one entry. (Feature request: edit past entries!)

MyMileMarker History

After logging your mileage a few times, MyMileMarker will begin to show graphs and make projections based on the mileage and fuel costs that you have entered. It will try and project the amount of miles your car will have and how much you may spend by the end of the year (or any set date). It will also show line graphs plotting your miles per gallon (MPG) and total vehicle miles helping you learn about your fuel economy. Additionally, MyMileMarker estimates your vehicles overall MPG and allows you to view your entire vehicle history. Sadly, I could not find any method of exporting my vehicles history.

MyMileMarker Projections

MyMileMarker is off to a good start. What I like most is that you only record your mileage after filling up your vehicle, unlike many services which have you record your mileage every time you drive. It’s also nice being able to log your mileage from anywhere using a mobile phone. Additionally, I found MyMileMarker’s projections of year end costs and mileage to be useful and a real eye-opener. There are a few things that I don’t like though. For starters, there’s no way of importing or exporting your vehicles history. It would save a lot of time if you could import a spreadsheet or some kind of CSV (comma separated values) file. Also, you can’t edit past entries and fixing a mistake involves deleting old records and adding them over again. Otherwise, I like MyMileMarker for its simplicity and accessibility and plan to continue using it.

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Pownce on Your Friends Thu, 28 Jun 2007 19:15:44 +0000 Brian Benzinger PownceKevin Rose’s new company, Megatechtronium, launched Pownce yesterday. It was rumored to be a new instant messaging client, but I’m not too sure if that’s a good term for it. I see it more as a combination of Twitter and Tumblr. Pownce allows you to communicate with friends much like you would with Twitter, but it also allows you to send special messages in the form of links, files, and events. There’s also strong group messaging features which enables you to send messages to a single friend, a group of friends, or all Pownce users.

Pownce comes in two flavors: Web and Adobe AIR application. We’ll take a look at both, but you’re free to use whichever one you’d like. The web interface has a similar structure to Twitter. You will find a list of all your friends on the left, a form in the middle for posting messages, and past messages right below the form. There’s also a list of filtering options on the right so you can narrow down on message type, messages in reply to you, and messages that you have sent. You can also find a settings area in which users can customize their profile with a custom blurb, a profile photo, and theme. (Four preset themes to choose from)

Pownce Main Profile

The stream of messages on your main profile page consists of public messages, private messages, and replies. Each message is formatted differently depending on its message type and shows additional information like how many replies have been made and who else can see the message. You can also navigate into an individual message to create a reply, rate the message, and view other replies from other Pownce users. You will also find a handy forwarding feature that lets you pass any message you come across to your own friends. And don’t forget about advertisements. Pownce offers a pro plan for $20/year which disables advertisements, but if you’re not pro, expect to find advertisements appear in the form of specially styled messages. To be honest, I wonder why Twitter hasn’t done the same because they really aren’t all that obtrusive.

Sending a message is very simple and can be done in either the web interface or Pownce application. As of now, users can send messages in the form of text, links, files, and events. Clicking on a message type that you want to send will dynamically change the form with the appropriate fields. For example, sending a link will let you fill in an address with a description; file lets you choose a file and write a description (also has a nice progress bar show as you upload); and when adding an event, you can fill in the what, when and where with a message. Unfortunately, you can only upload one file at a time (unless you make your own zip file) and you are limited to 10MB if you don’t have a pro account (pro can upload 100MB files).

Pownce Adobe AIR ApplicationNow let’s take a look at Pownce’s Adobe AIR based application. As mentioned earlier, Pownce lets you use either the web interface or Pownce AIR app, but you only get a small fraction of the features in the AIR app. You can add messages and view messages and that’s about it. The only real benefit of using the AIR app at this point is that it’s easier to keep open than a browser and you can quickly keep track of messages and add messages. Another thing I like is how each message is displayed in a collapsed format only to show the full message when you click it. This makes it easier to look through your list of messages and removes clutter. Otherwise, I found the application to be a little buggy at times (explains the alpha status). For instance, when using the scroll wheel, it would sometimes scroll in the opposite direction I would tell it. Also, when you add a friend, you have to quit the application and open it again for the drop down list of friends to update. Lastly, you see a flicker every time the list of most recent messages refreshes, which can be a bit distracting, but not a major issue.

To be honest, my first impression of Pownce was not good. During the first 30 minutes of testing, I thought to myself, “Did they really just hype up yet another twitter clone?” I was wrong. Pownce does feel like Twitter in many ways, but it’s much more structured and feature rich. Perhaps my favorite feature of Pownce is the ability to add replies to specific messages and then viewing all the replies in a threaded discussion. This becomes much more useful as you start having multiple private discussions and public discussions at the same time. I also found that messaging on Pownce just doesn’t feel the same as Twitter, which isn’t a bad thing. Twitter feels much more free-form where I can just say whatever is on my mind. But with Pownce, I feel I have to refrain from submitting multiple messages in a row and say something actually worth sharing.

Even though I’ve only had an account with Pownce since last night, I’m already finding it to be a great way to communicate with friends. It’s not too far off from your basic instant messenger, but the format in which messages are displayed and group messaging features makes it much more appealing. I can’t say I’d pay $20/year for it, but I must admit the pro badges look awfully nice. Unfortunately, Pownce is only accepting invitation-only registration at this time and I do not have any invites to hand out. You can find me on Pownce with the username, bbenzinger. Lastly, I owe thanks to Rafe Needleman for an invitation to Pownce. You can find his review of Pownce on Webware.

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L8r is Future Mail with a Business Model Tue, 26 Jun 2007 04:58:51 +0000 Brian Benzinger L8rL8r is a new service that lets users create an email and have it delivered at a specific time in the future. It’s similar to the popular site FutureMe where anyone can write a simple letter to themselves or a friend and have that letter sent by email sometime in the future, for you know, fun. But what L8r has done is combined this idea of sending an email at a later date with email reminders and a focus on Getting Things Done. (Well, if I put it that way, it sounds more like a basic reminder service) L8r suggests using the service for things like sending out birthday emails, reminding yourself to buy flowers on your anniversary, setting personal goals, and impressing your boss by “sending” an email late at night.

Signing up with L8r will allow you to have three pending emails at any time for free, but if you need to send any more than that, it will cost you. You can purchase 10 emails for $1.99, 200 emails for $9.99, and 1,000 emails for $24.99. When you run out, you’ll be switched back to the free plan. Now, you may be wondering, why pay for L8r when you can send emails in the future with a service like FutureMe for free? Paid users of L8r get more features like file attachments, the ability to send HTML email, unlimited pending emails, and SSL security. L8r will also get rid of that annoying “sent later with l8r” message at the bottom of your messages.

L8r Messages

What I like about L8r is that you can create email drafts and view pending and sent email in the messages area just like you would a normal email client. The benefit of this is that you can keep record of sent mail and fix any mistakes you have made in a pending email before it gets sent out. L8r will also send you an email when a message cannot be delivered and put it in the “undelivered” tab. This way, if you sent a message to an email address that doesn’t exist or if someone’s mail server is down, you can find out what email didn’t make it and send again. Another feature is the ability to send an email to more than one person. You just separate multiple email addresses with a comma in the “to” field and L8r will send to each recipient.

Compose Future Mail in L8r

Even though L8r isn’t anything all that new when compared to email reminders (except that it sends up to five years in the future), I think it’s a pretty neat service. I can see it being helpful for people that use reminders in their daily workflow and need more than basic text messages. You can have three pending emails at any time for free and get extras like HTML mail, attachments, and SSL when you pay for more. Something L8r may also want to consider is allowing users to send recurring messages to themselves for repeating tasks and personal goals. I also ran into a couple minor problems. First, when editing an email, the time did not offset properly from its original set time. Also, when trying to buy more email credits, L8r directed me to a PayPal checkout for Netherlands users and I couldn’t make a purchase. (Maybe not such a minor problem) Otherwise, everything ran well and future emails that I sent out arrived on average 2-3 minutes after my set time.

As a last note, another service similar to L8r and FutureMe is FutureMail which allows you to send email in the future as a note or reminder to yourself. FutureMail also has this neat concept of a “FutureMail Blog” where you get a public stream of your future messages and an RSS feed to share with friends.

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Reinventing the Wiki with OpenTeams Sun, 24 Jun 2007 00:00:55 +0000 Brian Benzinger OpenTeamsOpenTeams offers an interesting service that wants to reinvent the wiki. It’s designed to strengthen team collaboration and innovation while working on group projects, or as OpenTeams puts it, “initiatives”. Its interface is organized much like an email client so non-technical users immediately become familiar with the system and collaborate. But OpenTeams isn’t just limited to your usual wiki-style content. You can create outlines, attach files, discuss projects in message boards, and more.

When you sign up, OpenTeams assigns you to what they call a “space”, which is simply a group of other OpenTeams users. At default you may be assigned to two spaces: one being a “domain space” and another being an “invitation-only space”. When I signed up, OpenTeams created a space for every user that has in their email address. This allows me to collaborate with only users associated with Solution Watch. OpenTeams also assigned me to the space, “OpenTeams User Community,” which is an invitation-only space where every OpenTeams user can collaborate and share (or in its current state, test). I can also go ahead and create my own spaces and provide access to only the people I choose to invite.

Once you are in a space, OpenTeams allows you to collaborate with four main types of content: initiatives, cPages, briefings, and profiles. Strange naming, I know. I even ended up using the help section just to learn what each content type is for. As it turns out, they are just as they sound: initiatives are like folders used to keep groups of content related to a specific project together; a cPage is a basic collaborative page, or wiki page; briefings are groups of content similar to initiatives but organized in an outline form; and profiles are just user profiles that can be included in an initiative or outline.

OpenTeams Interface

To better understand how these content types come into play, let’s look over the interface. The interface is split into three panes. The first pane on the left is the OpenTeams navigator. The navigator provides a list of all initiatives and associated briefings, colleagues, and content tags. Each area of the navigator also allows you to associate documents to an initiative, colleague, or tag by simply dropping content on the respective area. The “List Viewer”, or middle pane, lists each relative content item and allows you to filter through all content on the site. The last pane, which is the content viewer, is where users can view a document, participate in threaded discussions, manage attachments, set tags, and even view the history of a document. It’s like a wiki, discussion board, and file manager in one.

OpenTeams Page Editor

OpenTeams allows you to add any of the four content types at any time and so getting started really depends on what you are wanting to accomplish. It’s flexible enough where you can just add content and later group the content into initiatives and outlines or the reverse for just about anything you want to share with your team. OpenTeams suggests you can even create internal blogs using initiatives with cPages, then using the List Viewer to sort the cPages by date. To get started, simply select a content type in the “fish-eye” menu at the top and create a new page. The content viewer will then minimize and a new window will appear that lets you fill in your page content and other metadata. You’ll notice OpenTeams also uses a rich text editor instead of the usual wiki markup making it easier for non-technical users to get in and collaborate.

OpenTeams Outline Editor

One of my favorite features of OpenTeams is the briefing outline editor. If you have a group of cPages that you want to organize for your team, you can organize them in outline form with a briefing page making the content easier for everyone to grasp and view. OpenTeams explains that briefing pages can also be good for structuring content like slides in a presentations or listing sections in a table of contents. To use the briefing outline editor, just create a briefing and drag and drop pages into the content view. You can then indent each item you drop into the outline as needed. The editor also allows you to insert a “placeholder” item if you just want to add a simple one-liner. When the page is done, you can also drag it in an initiative folder and it will appear in the “Quick Nav Favorites” on the navigator pane.

OpenTeams Discussion AreaAnother great thing about OpenTeams is that every page you create gets its own discussion area, file manager, history overview, and tag cloud. What’s nice about this is that it lets you continue collaborating with users in a specific page without having to edit the original content of a page like you would a normal wiki. It also saves you from having to send emails to your team by instead using the discussion area. You can even add images and other files in a pages file manager keeping all information related to a page together.

The last thing I want to talk about is OpenTeams unique billing model. First off, OpenTeams is not free, but they do give you $42 dollars in credit to start out with. The way it works is simple, and at first it may sound pricey, but it really isn’t. OpenTeams charges 99 cents per user-login a day. So, if you were to login ten times in a given month, it would cost less than $10 dollars for that month. This way, you only get charged when you actually use the service. OpenTeams also caps the cost to $16/person a month. Additionally, if you were to stop paying for the service, you are still allowed to access your spaces, but you cannot add or edit the content.

OpenTeams is an impressive service, but is it better than a normal wiki? Yes and no. It really depends on what you need. OpenTeams’ high point is adding structure to a wiki. If you need to organize pages into folders, create outlines, track files, and work with a group of users, OpenTeams is definitely worth checking out. Otherwise, if you all you are looking for is a simple way to work collaboratively on documents, I’d say stick with a free service like Wikispaces or Google Docs.

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Track Your Expenses with BudgetPulse Thu, 21 Jun 2007 04:27:48 +0000 Brian Benzinger BudgetPulseBudgetPulse is a new financial management service in closed beta that aims to simplify the way you manage your money and track budgets. It allows you to manage multiple accounts and track income, expenses, assets, bills, and more. Additionally, BudgetPulse lets you set goals which assists you in tracking and recording how much money you spend over certain durations of time. (weeks, months, years, etc.)

If you’re looking for a financial application with all the usual Web 2.0 design elements, BudgetPulse may be the service for you. You’ve got your gradients and reflections, Ajax calls with every action, and of course, neat JavaScript slider effects. I can’t say I’m a fan of applications that over do it with Ajax, but enough about that and let’s get started. Logging in to BudgetPulse will direct you to the Dashboard showing a brief overview of your financial situation. You can see each of your accounts and their balances on the left as well as upcoming expenses and expense categories that are close to going over budget in the middle. BudgetPulse also aggregates financial news from top financial news sources like Google and Yahoo! which can help you plan your spending and budgets accordingly. You can also search through all of your transactions using the search form on the right column.

BudgetPulse Dashboard

To get an account up and running, head over to the accounts area in the tracking section. You can add an account and set its opening balance, then start adding expenses, sources of income, and recurring payments like bills. BudgetPulse also allows you to make a money transfer from one account to another like real banking. Additionally, you can categorize each transaction you add to an account so BudgetPulse can later group the transactions and base them against your budget goals. Expect to type out the category every time you add a transaction though as BudgetPulse does not pre-populate your list of your categories for you.

BudgetPulse Budgets

As you’ve probably guessed, BudgetPulse helps you create and track budgets on the expenses your make. It groups up each expense by the categories you create and allows you to set a specific budget amount to an expense category. So, for example, if I were to add a couple transactions with the category, “entertainment”, BudgetPulse will show that category in the budgets area and allow me to set a budget amount to it. It will then display a simple bar that compares how much I have actually spent on entertainment and what I have budgeted. At default, it bases the data on a months time, but you can set a date range at the top.

BudgetPulse GraphsAfter getting some data into BudgetPulse, you can view charts and summaries on your financial activity. The charts are especially useful because just seeing your expenses visually can be a real eye-opener and help you better plan for the future. There are three different charts: Expense allocation (pie chart), monthly expenses shown by day (line graph), and monthly expenses shown by month (bar graph). The BudgetPulse summary section allows you to view each transaction category and narrow down into each category showing totals of the last four months and the overall difference of your income and expenses.

With many other personal finance services out there, where does BudgetPulse stand? BudgetPulse offers a nice set of features, though I found the interface a bit clunky and ran into some small bugs here and there (mostly when submitting a form with invalid information or nothing at all). However, I did like the ability to quickly search through all of my transactions. I also liked the summary overview and the budgets area where you can assign budget amounts to specific categories of transactions. On the down side, you cannot export or import data, but that’s said to be in development for BudgetPulse’s public beta, along with other features like a calendar, mobile access, and SSL encryption. As it stands, I’m going to continue using my favorite money manager for the mac, Cha-Ching, but I am interested in seeing the public beta release of BudgetPulse. I have noticed some changes to BudgetPulse since I first started testing too, which is always a good sign.

In related news: check out Expensr, a social expense tracking application reviewed by Webware. Also keep an eye out for Mint, a personal finance service that’s been generating some buzz lately.

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VideoJug Relaunches Mon, 04 Jun 2007 15:14:20 +0000 Brian Benzinger VideoJug, a how-to video sharing site previously reviewed on Solution Watch, relaunched their website today with a fresh new design and new “Ask the Expert” video content.

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unFortunate – Cookies not included. Fri, 04 May 2007 18:20:44 +0000 Brian Benzinger Our company, Parallel, just launched a fun little project that we’ve been working on called, unFortunate. It’s the only place where you can view, create, share, and print your own fortunes. Check it out!

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Cashboard: Who Needs An Accountant? Tue, 24 Apr 2007 06:27:25 +0000 Brian Benzinger CashboardIf you’re a fan of 37signal’s Basecamp, you’ll probably like Cashboard, a new application designed to help service-oriented businesses manage estimates, invoices, timesheets and payments. It’s like a combination of SlimTimer for time tracking and Blinksale for invoicing mixed with some basic accounting. It also complements project management systems well. You could, for example, start off in Cashboard by sending a project estimate to a potential client. Then, once the project has been given the go, plan the project and communicate as you normally would in your project management application. While you work, track time, send out invoices, and keep an eye on company payments with Cashboard. And to make things even easier, Cashboard integrates Basecamp so you can sync projects, contacts, and tasks between both applications.

Cashboard has four main areas: Estimates, Projects, Timesheets, and Accounting. Let’s start things off in the estimates area. This is where you go when you need to send an estimate to a potential client for a project. Cashboard allows you to list each task for a project estimate, set with a hourly rate or flat fee, and send the estimate to your potential client. What’s also nice is the ability to add a best and worst case estimate for each task so the client has an idea of possible overhead. Cashboard then allows you to either have your client login to Cashboard’s client area and accept the agreement or let you print out the estimate and send it to your client.

Cashboard Project(Note: figures in the screenshots are just test numbers)

The projects area is the main area of Cashboard and is where you will spend most of your time. Like the Estimates page, you can add and remove tasks and reorder as needed. You and your employees can also log time for a specific task in the task overview. Cashboard also made it very easy for you to keep on top of costs as you add time to tasks. A row will appear stating the billable hours and amount compared to the original estimates or planned hours, which is very helpful for service-oriented businesses. It’s also important to note that when you create your company, you fill in a default hourly rate, but the hourly rate for each employee can be changed on a per project basis in the details area of a project. Cashboard will spot the difference and show your clients the totals based on the company hourly rate while you can view totals based on the company rate and employee rate.

You and your employees can also log their time in the Timesheets area. I’ve tested many time tracking products and I must say Cashboard has done a pretty good job with it. What I like is that it doesn’t force you to track your time a certain way. You can submit time on a daily basis adding the hours you worked for the day manually or using their stopwatch counter. Or you can go into the weekly tab and fill in the amount of hours you worked each day of the week at the end of the week. You can also submit as you go in the “All-time” tab. Whichever way works best for your team, you can do. The only problem I have with the Timesheets page is that the stopwatch counter cuts off when you close the window (maybe adding a simple session when the counter starts would solve this).

The project page also allows you to create invoices from your company’s logged time. Just click, “Create Invoice,” and it will automatically grab the amount of hours each employee has worked and fill in the information for the invoice. You can also add your own items to the invoice manually so anything that wasn’t in the original task list can get invoiced. Cashboard also lets you change the invoice id, sales tax, date range, and add a small note to your invoice. When your invoice is good and ready, send it to your client with Cashboard, which will give your client a login to review it, or print it out to mail to your client. Once you receive the payment from your client, head to the invoice, click “Add Payment” and fill in the amount the client paid up. To close an invoice, just mark the invoice as “paid in full” when adding a payment.

Ok. You’ve created estimates, projects, and invoices. Now you’re ready to view the Accounting area. It’s no QuickBooks, but it covers recent invoices, recent payments, and provides helpful information about client balances and net profits. Perhaps my favorite section of the invoicing page is “Company Cash Stats” which shows totals each employee of your team has made and how much you received from invoices with the end net profit. The cash stats can also be found in an individual project page letting you see how much profit your company actually took in after paying your employees for time on a project. Another helpful section is “Account Balances” which lists each client with collected information on invoices and payments giving you a quick glance at who’s on top of payments and who’s not. My only complaint about the accounting section is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to export the data or print it out.

In all, Cashboard seems to be a helpful product for service-oriented businesses. It’s a well thought out product that was obviously created by people in the design and development industry. You can create estimates, manage projects, manage timesheets from company employees and subcontractors, send off invoices to clients, review company payments and more. I was a bit overwhelmed at first and had some confusion when invoicing clients and splitting employee earnings (figured this out after adding employee hourly rates), but the rest came without problem. It’s also worth mentioning that Cashboard has a Mac Dashboard widget for submitting time and that Basecamp users can sync tasks and use projects from Basecamp.

Cashboard is currently in its alpha stage and offers plans ranging from free to $40 per month. However, and take note, the pricing page states prices are at half price during it’s alpha stage and that pre-launch users will get a promotion code for two free months once the alpha stage has completed.

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