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.
It’s been an interesting experience. As ever with new stuff, there’s good and bad points. So, how did it go?
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the end…
When the project was being wound up the client asked us for a record of the entire chat to keep on their file. Not unreasonable. Sadly Campfire proved to be unreasonable – there’s no way to download the entire record, or filter it, or anything really except save each individual day’s chat as a HTML file. In the end that’s what we ended up doing and it wasn’t too bad. But to strip out the unwanted .swf files that came with it I actually had to resort to using Windows command line to do a selective delete through a folder subtree. Now that was fun for a retro nerd like me, but frankly it isn’t really what you want your customers to end up doing when you’re selling them a slick modern web service. Clunky.
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.
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.