Lots of companies offer apps and services that aim to enhance group collaboration on projects in one way or another. It’s a worthy goal for users in business, academia and elsewhere. But no one product has nailed the whole process so far, which is why millions of emails and texts are still sent daily to swap drafts of documents, comment on planning, or set up old-fashioned conference calls.
This week, I took a look at an app named Moxtra that aims to tackle the problem through something it calls “power messaging” — a combination of group sharing and annotating of documents with text and audio chats that are built around collections of relevant documents.
For instance, a sales team could use Moxtra to collaborate on a presentation, or a study group could use it to learn from a tutor or build a report. A family or group of friends in different locations could use it to plan a trip or event.
Text and audio comments can be entered by anyone. Users can even record narrated mini-presentations showing how and why they annotated documents.
Moxtra, from a company of the same name, is a free app for iOS and Android phones and tablets, as well as a service that can be accessed from any browser. People participating in a chat can be on any mix of these devices. The service is cloud-based, and claims strong encryption.
The product has been out for a while, and was originally based around collections of documents called “binders” that were relevant to a project. The binders still exist, but the product was overhauled late last year to put its group chat features front and center.
I tested Moxtra on an iPhone, an iPad, and a browser on a laptop. In fact, I used it to conduct my research for this column, trying out its various features while chatting via text and voice with the company’s executives. I even convened what Moxtra calls a “Meet” — a group audio conference via Moxtra during which documents (which Moxtra calls “pages”) can be displayed and annotated.
Right now, there’s no limit on the amount of stuff you can store in Moxtra binders, or the length of a Meet session, or the number of participants. Eventually, Moxtra intends to impose limits on these things and charge for premium accounts that exceed them, and to add new, paid features.
Overall, I liked Moxtra, and could really see how it could make small teams more efficient.
However, in my tests, I encountered a couple of bugs (the company says these will be fixed in coming weeks). And I found some of the product’s tools daunting at first. For instance, there are multiple different ways to use audio in the product, which can be confusing, and the annotation tools have so many choices as to be a bit overwhelming. The company says it plans to simplify these things.
Also, there is one missing feature I’d like to see in a product like this. Moxtra does a good job of putting a document in front of multiple people, but unlike, say, Google Docs, it doesn’t allow collaborative composing or editing of documents. You can only annotate and comment by text or audio.
To use Moxtra, you first create a binder and upload to it the pages you want to work on. These can be files and documents from your computer or from a service like Dropbox, photos, videos, pages from other binders, or screen grabs of all or parts of Web pages.
Then you invite people to a chat and post text comments, audio comments or pages, either one at a time or in groups. These pages can be annotated with freehand markings, arrows, text or audio tags. I especially liked the ability to add audio comments, in the chat stream itself, or right on a document. It saves typing and typos, especially when you’re using a smartphone.
Members of the group can add their own comments or annotations. You switch between two views — Chat and Pages — by toggling a prominent button at the top of the screen.
I especially liked two features. One is called Moxtra Notes. These are small videos which you can record and place in the chat stream that are like narrated guided tours of your annotations, in which you can explain things. They can be played back later by others, or even shared via email or YouTube, or saved to a camera roll as a video.
The other is the Meet, which allows everyone to see and discuss documents and their annotations together. It’s not a video call, but it really can speed up the work. Meets can be ad hoc or scheduled, and participants in them get an orange border around their Moxtra screens, The convener of the Meet can even share her screen, or hand over the reins to another participant, in real time.
I ran into a few annoying things. Notes sometimes wouldn’t play back. Audio and some other types of annotations didn’t always show up immediately. The company says it is working on fixing these.
And pages I shared with people who don’t have a Moxtra account couldn’t be annotated by them unless they became Moxtra users.
Still, Moxtra can be a very useful tool for small groups to get work or planning done. It’s worth a try.
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