Remote working definitely has its advantages. That’s an assertion I can back up with my own experience, not least in terms of my writing for AppStorm. The opportunity to work anywhere within range of a Wi-Fi signal provides wonderful freedom, and the lack of workplace distractions can make a significant, positive difference to productivity.
Not that it’s perfect, by any means. One of the key challenges of employment-by-broadband is trying to work with a team. An on-site employee or employer needs only to get up and walk a few steps to give or receive feedback, share ideas, or simply have a chat at the water-cooler. Of course, those of us who work from afar do not have that luxury. It’s not surprising, then, that there are plenty of video-calling and instant messaging options aimed at suiting the needs of geographically spread business teams.
Whilst no online platform can replace the instantaneous, spontaneous communication available in person, the next best thing, in my view, is a chat platform which works swiftly and efficiently. New beta collaboration service Fleep is aiming to provide just that, together with productivity aids such as file sharing. Fleep is up against some tough competition though (we’re all very impressed with Slack here at AppStorm, for example), but can it shine through?
There’s nothing worse than a chat service that is difficult to set up. Well, okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the general sentiment stands. Simple sign-up is most definitely welcome.
Fleep doesn’t require the input of many details up front — just an email and a password — and so it achieves the desired straightforwardness here. Equally, once you’re logged in to your dashboard, you simply need to click Add Conversation and you’re ready to start chatting.
Well, nearly ready. You need someone to talk to.
If everyone has already signed up with Fleep, you can simply add them to your chat by entering their email, and if you already have somebody in one of your chats, you can add them to another just by entering their name.
Adding non-Fleep members to your newly created chatroom is a little trickier than you might hope, though. There currently isn’t a direct method of inviting people to join in with your Fleep conversation, so you’ll have to pass a digital memo around your entire team – irritating.
That said, for folks who have yet to join Fleep, entering their email address will ensure that they get inbox-directed updates.
Design is not always the focus, or the forte of business-aimed SaaS platforms. Fleep isn’t stunningly beautiful, but it has a look of cleanness to it, which many rivals lack.
The first thing to note is Fleep’s flatness. Controls are differentiated from one another by shapes and colours, rather than shadows and faux textures. The colour scheme is made up mostly of an unremarkable palette of greys, but Fleep’s signature shade of turquoise is used for highlighting.
The layout is notable for its spaciousness — sidebars don’t feel cramped, but messages have room too. Unfortunately, Fleep’s site isn’t fully responsive. Reduce the width of your browser’s window to around 800px or smaller, and you start having to scroll sideways.
For the most part, though, Fleep’s interface is practical, and visually inoffensive.
You may be wondering what I’m going to write about here. Surely chat is just chat? In reality, there are several factors which add up to great textual communication.
Speed is essential. My tests suggest that Fleep is definitely snappy enough to have a flowing conversation. Also, if you have email notifications switched on, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the speed at which they are sent out — no five-minute waiting here.
Sadly, @-mentioning isn’t included, which means you’re going to have to read everything to check whether it’s a comment aimed in your direction. This is definitely a must-add for future development.
Equally, I hope Fleep will integrate with browser alerts at some point, but at present, a Windows notifier is the only way of keeping track of chatter on your desktop (the Mac version is still some way off, I’m told). The count of unread messages displayed in Fleep’s browser tab at least provides a mitigating factor, as does Fleep’s iPhone app (free), which allows iOS handset owners to stay up to date.
It all adds up to a solid, but underwhelming, chat experience.
Messaging isn’t the only feature needed in a high quality productivity-aimed chat app, though.
Take file uploads, for instance. Fleep is quite happy to take pretty much any file type, and it displays previews of all the usual formats, such as images, PDFs, etc. No, there isn’t the option to embed files inline, but for most teams, the single extra click to view a file isn’t going to be the cause of any major loss of productivity. It’s also worth noting that every item uploaded to a conversation can be accessed via the file drawer on the right-hand side.
Also over on the right is an area for pinned messages. While you are viewing a conversation, opening the drop-down menu next to a update provides the opportunity to send the message to this drawer — a very useful feature for team leaders who want to make sure their announcements are seen.
The genre of chat is a very hard one in which to build a stand-out platform. It looks simple, but, as is often the case, true simplicity is very hard to combine with complete utility.
Given Fleep’s relatively early stage of development — it is only due to hatch from its beta egg next year — the undercooked feel to the platform is understandable. Fleep’s under-development does make it inferior to other, more prominent current chat options at present, but in terms of simple chat, it does okay. In fact, given the snappiness of its email notifications, teams who just want to communicate with reasonable speed, rather than with IM rapidity, should be perfectly happy with Fleep’s system. They’ll be even happier to note that Fleep is free throughout its beta stage.
In total then? A chat platform with much to learn, but one which provides the bare essentials competently.