Product Reviews

Product Reviews

In Brief

ACT! 6.0 is superb at handling contacts and associated information. But itís an enormous disappointment that after so many years, the product remains better suited for individual users than for workgroups. ACT! 6.0 seems completely ignorant about realtime data sharing via the Web. Users waited a long time for this product; they deserve much, much better.


Price

$199; upgrade, $99

Interact Commerce, a division of Best Software
Scottsdale, Ariz.


Competition

For contact management in the networked world, youíll want to check out GoldMine. Maximizer is the other well-known product in this category. Microsoftís Outlook 2003 will feature an add-on Business Contact Manager.



applications software

ACT! 6.0 Contact Manager


Rating:

By Joel Shore

May 9, 2003

ACT! 6.0 is program I very badly wanted to love. Now in its sixth generation, ACT! is the product most-often mentioned when the topic of contact-management software comes up.

Full of improvements in its overall fit and finish, and blessed with a bevy of new features, the overall experience, alas, is one of long-standing shortcomings remaining unaddressed. And thatís truly too bad, because at its core, ACT! is still king of the mountain at handling contactsófor individual users. Unfortunately, ACT! 6.0 seems completely unaware of todayís geographically scattered, wireless employees who work via the Web.

New Features

ACT! 6.0 retains its general look, but screens have been tweaked for a more sophisticated appearance. As always, you can move fields (phone numbers, addresses, etc.) around the screen and add additional ones. Outlook has never been able to do that (and that wonít change in Office 2003).

Hereís some of whatís new in ACT! 6.0:

  • Redesigned e-mail with 10 HTML templates

  • Improved integration with Outlook

  • Ability to access, view, and editor documents from within any contact record

  • Activity lookup to tap inactive prospects

  • Pop-up calendar that provides event detail

  • Advanced alarms with increased detail

  • View Web sites from within ACT!

  • Synchronize ACT! and Outlook calendars

  • Annual Event field type for birthdays, anniversaries, expiration dates, etc.

The Look, The Feel

Many products have made a point of adopting the look of Microsoftís Outlook e-mail and calendaring program, mainly the vertical navigation bar at the left side of the screen. ACT! 6.0 is not different. But hold on. Outlook 2003, due in late summer 2003, is all new, completely redesigned, and looks very different from what weíre used to. Emulate older versions of Outlook and you emulate the past. (Of course, if you emulate, you are, by definition, a follower, not a leader, but thatís another story.) See for yourself:

 

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The main contact screen in ACT! 6.0 is easy on the eyes  and adopts the familiar "Outlook Bar," look; the vertical navigation area to the left of the screen.

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Microsoft Outlook 2003 sports an all-new design that fits a whopping 40% more into the same screen space as prior versions. The Outlook Bar has been completely redesigned, eliminating space-wasting icons.

Great Contact Management

Youíd expect a contact manager to be superb at handling contacts. ACT! 6.0 does not disappoint. You can add fields, define the field entry order, and move fields around on the screen. You can sort, group, and find contacts in many ways, limited only by your imagination. You can group contact (all employees for one company, for example) and then break that group into sub-groups (say, regional offices).

You can link files (a PowerPoint presentation or a Word document, for example) to contacts. Beware though, these are just pointers to where that file resides; itís not included in your ACT! database and wonít be sent to any other with whom you synchronize contacts. Thatís pretty poor. If a file resides on a server, it should be accessible by anyone, anywhere, and at any time, so long as one has the access rights to do so.

Coming Up Short

ACT! is most often compared with GoldMine. Both products compete in the same price bracket and for the same mid-level user. While this new version of ACT! is much cleaner looking than prior incarnations, it just doesnít measure up to GoldMine in the area of realtime workgroup collaboration.

A little history. Developed in 1986, ACT! for DOS was designed for individual users. Following the 1990 release of Microsoft Windows 3.0, ACT! for Windows arrived in 1992. Though the costs of PC-based networking had already started to drop, ACT! remained a product for the individual. By contrast, GoldMine, was created by someone who had worked for Banyan, the now-defunct networking company. Given that background, GoldMine was conceived from the ground up for use in a networked environment, by simultaneous multiple users. ACT! has been taken to task over the years for not catching up. When it comes to multiuser operation, it still lags far behind.

Thereís really very little in the ACT! Userís Guide that discusses the concept of sharing contact information in real time. Ten pages of the manualóa complete chapter, in factóis devoted to synchronizing usersí databases with each other, an outdated concept that can be unwieldy and difficult to keep straight. (Did I sync with Patrick? And did Patrick sync with Stephanie? And on and on.)

Oddly, the manual does mention the far superior idea of sharing data via a multiuser database, and refers the reader to another place in the manual (page 95), where a scant two pages is devoted to the concept. If you choose to go for the multiuser database, be sure that all users upgrade to version 6.0. Thatís because 5.0 and 6.0 users cannot share the same database.

And then thereís this, taken directly from the ACT! tech support Web site: "We neither support nor recommend accessing ACT! databases over dial-up connections, virtual private networks (VPNs), or wide area networks (WANs)." I agree that dial-up is undesirable, but only because itís slow. But a VPN or a WAN? These are modern, high-speed, secure, means of communications. Is this a deliberate repudiation of the technologies on which todayís business rely, or could it perhaps be an admission that it was just too hard do? Either way, itís unacceptable.

Compared with the highly network-savvy GoldMine, itís a real shame to see that ACT! has made so little progress into the age of collaborative computing.

Microsoft, with its SharePoint Services platform running on Windows Server 2003, is bringing workgroup computing and worldwide sharing of documents to a new level of sophistication and simplicity. While ACT! is busy warning users of all the things itís not capable of doing, Microsoft is installing the plumbing that allows any software product to be Web-centric.

E-Mail Doesnít Quite Deliver

Creating e-mail within ACT! 6.0 is a curious experience. I think itís fair to say that the vast majority of knowledge workers today create their e-mail using Microsoft Outlook. A lesser (though still significant) number uses e-mail clients such as Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise, or Eudora.

When you use ACT!, it becomes its own e-mail client. Unlike Outlook, which seamlessly uses Word for composing messages, ACT! pops-up its own proprietary word processoróand in a separate window. Iím not sure why that is, but I am sure that I donít want two word processors on my system, thank you. Viewing mail is done in a pop-up window; that shouldnít be necessary.

Though the line between ACT! and Outlook are miles away from being seamless, the relationship between the two programs is improved. When using Outlook, you can access your ACT! contact database. Itís a good thing, too. Thatís because the ACT! e-mail function canít filter out spam or have dozens of user-defined mail-handling rules the way Outlook can.

There are other problems, too. The 6.0.3 update is not just a compendium of bug fixes. According the included readme file, nine new features are included, in addition to performance improvements. Why this many new features in what is essentially a patch? Itís a clear indication to me that 6.0 shipped long before it was finished and that 6.0.3 includes what never made it into the cardboard box.

And how about this: "When sending e-mail from Microsoft Outlook using your ACT! database as an address book, Microsoft Word cannot be used as the e-mail editor." This is a direct quote from the 6.0.3 readme file.

Furthermore, I must question a specific design decision. The ACT! tech support Web site discusses the problem "Cannot Create New, Reply, or Send e-mail After Updating to ACT! 6.0.3.x."

It turns out that the format for e-mail signatures introduced in version 6.0 has already been changed. It now allows multiple signatures. Great idea. But why now? Clearly, the people behind this program donít (or canít) think very far ahead. For a downloadable update to render a format in the just-released major new version obsolete is a monumental blunder. And the workaround is laughable: you are recommended to create an additional signature, one that might contain just a space or a period. Thatís outright amateur-league. And if that fix doesnít work, if you are "unable to add a signature to ACT!, you will need to edit the system registry." Is that something an end-user should do? Not a chance. Thatís flat-out unacceptable in a product now in itís sixth generation. Itís a mess.

End of the Line?

ACT! has a long heritage of excellence as a contact manager, and ACT! 6.0 succeeds in extending that track record. You can store lots of information about each of your customers, set reminders, link documents, and more. But as a long-awaited major update to a cherished business tool, Iím sorry to say that ACT! 6.0 is a failure.

This once great platform is so ignorant of Web-based, realtime sharing of contacts, files, appointments, and tasks, it makes one wonder whatís planned for version 7.0óor if the developers should even bother. Based on what is present inóand missing fromóversion 6.0, one must wonder if this company is even capable of developing such a product. Doing so would likely require throwing away much of the current code.

Considering the tone of this review, I must step away from my posture of impartiality in the interest of fairness and full disclosure. I am a longtime user of ACT! and wrote glowing reviews of prior versions. The folks at ACT! with whom Iíve had contact since the early 1990s are delightful, conscientious, dedicated people.

If there is to be a version 7, it had better allow users in New York, Tokyo, Paris, and on ships at sea to share all and see all, and do it in real time, with Web-based databases that eliminate the archaic practice of user file synchronization. Sad to say, ACT! 6.0 is poorly executed product that is way, way behind the times. <

 
Yeas & Nays

Yea:

4Excellent at handling contacts

4Screen layouts easily modified

4Improved Outlook interoperation

Nay:

4Not well-suited for network data access

4Works with Outlookówell, sort of

4Requires users to manually sync with each other

4Recent patch adds features incompatible with original shipping release

4This product isnít even close to being prime time


In the Box

ē Software CD

ē 133-page user guide

ē 48-page accessory catalog

ē 40-page directory of ACT! certified consultants and premier trainers

   

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