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The Hunt for a Google Wave Replacement, Part I: Shareflow

shareflow vs google wave

This is the first of a few articles over the coming weeks that will evaluate potential alternatives to Google Wave, which Google is discontinuing.  Check out Part II (Google Services) and Part III (Socialwok).

While many people had no use for Google Wave, the recent announcement of its impending demise is a disappointment for those who found it to be a useful tool.  Are you looking for a replacement?  If so, come along with us as we try out some alternatives over the coming weeks.  The first candidate that we’ve tried out is Zenbe Shareflow, a tool that is surprisingly Wave-like.  Read on for our impressions, and then let us know in the comments what you think of it.


Overview

Shareflow is very similar to Wave in many respects (with one key omission, which we’ll cover below).  You can start a “Flow,” which is a threaded series of comments, much like a Wave.  You can invite other users to a Flow, and then those users can post new comments to the Flow, or reply to existing comments.

invite members to flow

shareflow flow members

To conceptualize Shareflow, think of a forum, with different posts, and replies to those posts.  The left side of the screen in Shareflow lists the various Flows, using titles that you assign to each Flow.  To use the forum analogy again, think of the left side of the screen as containing a list of different forum categories.

Shareflow screenshot

Actually, the forum comparison is appropriate, as Shareflow is much like a forum, prettied up and on steroids.  Shareflow has some benefits over a typical forum platform, though.  Shareflow has a webclipper that you can use to clip URL’s and site descriptions into a Flow.  You can also embed YouTube videos, and snippets from other pages.  Shareflow doesn’t have Wave’s ecosystem of gadgets, but allows you to embed events, maps, and other files into comments.  Shareflow’s handling of events is particularly handy, as Shareflow takes into account a user’s timezone, and also allows users to import the event into iCal.

You also can control who has access to each Flow.  The left side of the screen will list each Flow that you started, along with the Flows to which you’ve been invited.  All in all, I’ve found it quite easy to navigate.


One Major Shortcoming

Shareflow has one major shortcoming, that will eliminate it as a choice for many users.  Specifically, Shareflow does not allow for true collaboration, since only the originator of a comment can edit that comment.  At 40Tech, we often will come up with a collaborative list, and we don’t necessarily want a “boss” of that list.  We all want to be able to add ideas to the list.  The only way for other users to do add to the list is by posting replies to the initial comment.  This means that users can’t see the entire list at a glance, but must scan the entire Flow.  The only way around this is for the comment originator to go back and edit the original comment to incorporate the changes of other users.

In their blog, the Zenbe folks have explained that this keeps Flows more tidy.  It might, but one size doesn’t fit all.  To be a true collaboration tool, Shareflow should at least give the originator of a comment the choice of allowing others to edit the comment, even if that isn’t the default behavior.

In addtion, this shortcoming does not allow users to edit a document together, in real time.  That may have been Wave’s most compelling feature.


Features

User Interace

The part of Shareflow that you might notice immediately is that it is easier on the eyes than Wave.  Unlike Google, Zenbe appreciates the aesthetics of white space.  It is easy to scan over Flows, comments, and replies, since they are spaced apart, with replies appearing in a comment bubble.  Both comments and replies also include the avatar of the commenter.  Top level comments have a larger avatar, while replies to comments use smaller avatars.  If a comment generates several replies, than Shareflow collapses most of those replies, and presents a “view more” link to expand them.

shareflow dropdown menu

The top right of each comment includes a count of the number replies to that comment, as well as a dropdown menu with several choices, including the ability to edit your own comments, to send an email, and to get a permalink to a comment.  You can also star and flag your own comments.


Email Integration

shareflow options Shareflow also integrates with email.  Unlike Wave, which only gives you a brief blurb when a Wave is updated, Shareflow emails you the complete content of new comments or replies.  A “comment on this” link within the email takes you directly to the Flow, ready to leave a comment.  You can also simply reply to the email to add a comment to a Flow.

Each Flow also gets its own email address.  Simply send a message to that address, and the content of your message will be added to the Flow.


Desktop Widget

If you like widgets, then Shareflow has you covered, offering a desktop widget that runs on Adobe Air.  The widget is pretty simple, changing appearance when there is new activity in your Flows, and allowing you to review new comments and replies.  This review is basic, showing all of your content chronologically.  You can reply from within the widget, but your reply, as best we can tell, just gets added as a reply to the end of a Flow.  You can also drop files onto the widget, and they’ll be attached to a Flow of your choosing.


Mobile

shareflow Shareflow also offers a free iPhone app.  The app lists each of your Flows, and allows you to add comments to your Flows.  You can’t, however, add individual replies to comments.  Your comments always go to the end of the Flow.  The app does allow you to start new Flows, invite new members to a Flow, and add photos to a Flow.  You can’t edit a comment, though.

A mobile app is also available by simply logging into your account via a mobile device.  Interestingly, the mobile site offers greater functionality than the iPhone app, allowing you to edit comments, which you can’t do via the iPhone app.  The mobile app doesn’t allow you to add new users to a Flow, though.


RSS Feed

If you’re an RSS fan, you’ll like that Shareflow allows you to monitor Flows via RSS.  Each Flow gets its own RSS address, to which you can subscribe to monitor any additions to the Flow.


Needed Improvements

Highlight New Posts

In addition to our major gripe (the inability for other users to edit a comment), we have some other smaller concerns as well.  Chief among these has to do with difficulty spotting new comments and replies.  Unlike Wave, new posts are not highlighted.  I’ve taken to using the email notifications as my primary method of identifying new posts, but this doesn’t help if I’m working in Shareflow at the time.  Shareflow should highlight new posts with a different background color, or consider a “new post” notification button that would take you to the new post.


Highlight Online Users

We’d also like it if Shareflow would indicate whether a user is online or not, by changing the appearance of the user’s avatar.  I found myself at times wondering how soon until the other Flow participants would see my messages.


Ability to Archive Comments

Another nice addition would be the ability to archive certain comments or replies when they are no longer relevant (or when the original commenter has edited his comment to include the reply).  This would keep Flows more tidy.


Hold Our Place

Shareflow also has an annoying habit of refreshing the screen when someone else updates a Flow that you are reading.  That can jump the focus of the screen, causing you to lose your place.  I’ve also found that, when editing a comment, the text being edited sometimes will scroll off of the visible window, making it impossible to see what I’m editing.


Public Flows

Shareflow also does not appear to support public Flows.  For anyone to see a Flow, you must invite him or her to it.  Whether by design or not, the lack of a public option means that Shareflow can’t be used as a social discussion tool.


Fix Email Notification Preferences

Finally, Shareflow doesn’t always seem to remember preferences with respect to email notifications.  Bobby disabled everything but daily updates, but continues to receive emails notifying him of every update.


A Wave Copycat?

If Shareflow sounds like an attempt to copy Google Wave, Zenbe would ask you to think again.  As they pointed out in a blog post in July of 2009, based upon when Wave was announced, they would have had to “deploy a real, complete, useable product, along with everything needed to actually support a public service, all in less than a month.”  That post also points to an early YouTube video and blog post as proof that Shareflow was in the works before Wave was announced.  Finally, Shareflow was available prior to the release of Wave.


Price

Shareflow is free with 1 GB of storage.  What isn’t clear is how that storage is measured.  Do only Flows that you originate count towards that 1GB?  Or, if you participate in a Flow that someone else originates, and that person uploads a large file, does that upload count both towards your limit, and the limit of the other person?  Unfortunately, our emails to Zenbe support on this question have gone unanswered (which is another concern – but we don’t want to base an opinion on a company’s level of support based on one incident).  Zenbe also offers additional storage, for a price.  You can get 5 GB of storage for $20 per month, 15 GB for $40 per month, and 30 GB for $80.


Conclusions

Perhaps Zenbe didn’t copy Google Wave when creating Shareflow, but the comparisons are inevitable.  The biggest difference – the inability to jointly edit comments and replies in Shareflow – is a shortcoming in the eyes of anyone looking for a true collaboration tool.  Still, the other features of Shareflow, like the desktop widget and the more complete email integration, make it a compelling product.  Match that with Shareflow’s pleasant interface, and you have a strong contender.


Have you tried Shareflow?  What did you think?