We've just started using 37signals Campfire collaboration software for a client. They wanted a private chatroom where a group of individuals could have online discussions and upload files to share. It was a fairly corporate organisation, and so needed to be fairly straightforward - no fancy avatars or smileys are necessary. Campfire seemed to fit the bill very well, so we signed up and the discussions got going (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ battery).

It's been an interesting experience. As ever with new stuff, there's good and bad points. So, how did it go?

Set-up
It's all web-based so setting up an account is easy enough. I asked some support questions by email and within 8 hours a helpful response came back. No technical skill is required (Sony VGP-BPS8 battery).

Follow up:

However the first issue arose when I came to upload the client's list of participants to the chatroom. Bizarrely, every single invitee needs to be individually invited to the chatroom, using a web form. What's more, once the form is submitted, an admin then has to select each new member and manually give them access to the chatroom (Sony VGP-BPL9 battery). There's no way to do this automatically, for example by uploading a CSV file or by allowing every new member a default set of permissions. With this client organisation having over 500 members this was a big problem for us, and we resolved it by inviting them all to email me if they wanted access - on the (correct) assumption that many would not bother. So the first stumbling-block reduced the number of participants significantly, and meant a lot of duplicated work for the site admin. This wasn't very good, and it's hard to see why Campfire is set up this way (Sony VGP-BPL11 battery).

Chatting away merrily
Members did start coming forward, and the chat was a successful one, with the client happy with the way it was going. There's no doubt that once people get on the Campfire system, it is a very easy and straightforward one to use. The interface is refreshingly simple and uncluttered and allows the benefit of private online chat without making corporate clients feel too intimidated by the 'social media' environment - although for some reason you can play sounds using text commands. A range of different people of different technical abilities were able to participate, and it all seemed to work smoothly (Sony VGN-FZ460E battery).

If we'd actually managed to get all 500 people online, though, I did wonder how manageable the chat would be. Visually, there's nothing to distinguish all the other participants on the page except their names. Your own contributions are highlighted, as are system messages, but all the other chat looks the same. With more than 5 or 6 people online at any one time this might be tricky. Luckily for us we never got to find that out (Sony VGN-FZ150E battery).

Also, the chat in this instance needed also to be on record, as people would come and go and others would want to read their contributions. Going back to look at past chat sessions was possible, but fairly clumsy: you get to look at a whole day's worth. Again, with a handful of users this was manageable, but with more than say 10 or 20 active users over time this would be a difficult business that many would not bother to do (Toshiba PA3535U-1BRS battery).

Not for old-skool browsers
Another hitch was revealed later, when it turned out that Campfire doesn't work for Internet Explorer 6. Well, hardly surprising, as IE6 went out with the ark, but given that this product seems to be aimed at the corporate market this was a surprise, and a disappointment. Actually, the Campfire website did warn us about it, but we hadn't noticed that. Bother! Although it did give us an opportunity to encourage participants to persuade their employer to use Firefox (Toshiba PA3534U-1BRS battery).

Conclusions
A good, robust, simple product that works as described. For a freebie, this is worth every penny and recommended. 37signals has a reputation for simple, web-based software that works, and that's what was delivered here (Toshiba PA3399U-2BRS battery).

As a pay-for product, Campfire was a little disappointing though. It's definitely not set up to scale for larger groups, which is odd considering its payment structure. A bit of refinement might make it a lot easier to administer, and more attractive to the corporate clients that presumably might form an important market for the application (Toshiba PA3285U-1BRS battery).



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