One of the big things missing last term from the community was an online component - some directory of people, some way to get information about what other people were up to, plan things, socialize, all that.
Last term, one of the residents built a custom app that took care of the most important parts of that problem - largely the “I have a name, where do they live?” or “What’s that person’s major?” - the digital equivalent of door tags. The problem of room booking, resource management, and notifying about events was taken care of through Google Calendar. You know, that web application capable of synchronizing with Outlook and everything that uses .ical files (which is basically everything else…). I really liked this system - it was a bit sloppy to set up, but at least at the end of it all I could go online and see my schedule overlaid with everything happening at VeloCity, and with two clicks I could add an event to my own personal calendar.
VeloCity’s staff examined the problem, looked at all the revolutionary solutions within that product space, and then said “fuck it” and installed Sharepoint and Exchange.
I’ve used Sharepoint before, and it’s basically what you’d expect from Microsoft - it kinda sorta does everything you need it to; but there’s a huge emphasis on “rights management” (so it’s really easy to create limited accounts, and really hard to create unlimited accounts) and it makes you do everything the “Sharepoint Way”, which often is not YOUR way.
In an all-MS business, it does a reasonable job of things (and it comes pre-installed on MS Server Small Business Edition, which makes roll-out stupid-easy). I really doubt that VeloCity is an all-Microsoft building, though. My beautiful “see the calendars in overly, export to my own in two clicks” solution has been relegated to a “go to a random, stupidly long URL, log in, navigate to the calendar, switch to the one-month calendar view, click to view item, click to export item (NOTE: Thank god I’m using Outlook on my PC so I can even do that - otherwise I would likely have to resort to manual duplication), click to close active item, click on next item I want to add”. Not so simple. And from what I can tell, there’s no way for me to directly integrate with that calendar. AND once I export an item, there’s no link to their original item - if they edit or move the item, the changes won’t show up within my exported item.
They’re also trying to fit Sharepoint into basically being a message board - but there are already compelling products out there that are message boards; Sharepoint’s implementation is far from the best, and to my mind is a pain to navigate.
They also have an Exchange server. Again, I don’t really mind Exchange - if you’re an all-MS business, and your square peg just happens to fit into their square hole, it’s not too bad. Of course, I’m not going to be an employee here for the next year, I’ll be out of here in another couple of months. So, I’m obviously not going to use the email address they gave me, I’m not going to bother integrating myself into their exchange environment (since Outlook can be a bitch to configure properly…), I’m certainly not going to replicate my calendars and contacts into Exchange just for shits and giggles. I already have an online calendaring system that works just dandy. So, in that case, I’m limited to using Outlook Web Access, which has all the wonderful feature of Hotmail, laid out just like Outlook (I don’t even think you can run a search on email messages).
The real advantage to Exchange is that where Sharepoint really falls off the wagon, Exchange can potentially pick things back up - shared calendars can be created that everyone shares, and can integrate in view to your own personal calendar. I actually rather like the way that Exchange deals with calendaring (I think you can see where GCal borrowed from their concepts). Of course, they aren’t using any of that. And they shouldn’t use any of that, since Exchange hardly seems to be a universally supported product, and it’s sort of a kick in the nuts to everyone running Linux or OSX.
Perhaps I’m being a bit overly negative, but I think with the crowd they’re trying to cater to a closed-source, walled garden that’s extremely proprietary and really only works in a streamlined way with Windows systems (though it’s probably decent on Macs) was a bad choice and demonstrates a lack of connection with the community.
As for what’s better out there; I was playing with Elgg a bit earlier (basically an open-source locally installed Facebook system) and it seemed promising. Google was already handling some of our services pretty well (they’re hardly perfect either, but at least they don’t generally seem to show a preference for one OS over another). Or they could sit down and decide what they most need to do, and install one or two solutions that cater to that. I think, at a bare minimum, a forum of some kind, some good calendaring that integrates into most every other product (and I think Google’s the best in the biz at the moment for that), and a product which at the minimum allows me to see and search for people who live in the building - whether it’s the custom app that a resident last term wrote or a commercial contact management system (heck, even a Google Docs document would work reasonably well).
I just don’t see how VeloCity can fit into the mold that Sharepoint and Exchange need it to fit into.