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Tired of SharePoint? Rival tool faces tests

If you’re a fan of better intel collaboration but you’re not wild about the community’s standard collaboration tool, Microsoft SharePoint, help could be on the way. A small San Francisco company called Huddle is waiting for security approvals to start pilot projects at NGA and the Department of Homeland Security with a rival service.

Huddle was founded in 2006 by a pair of British entrepreneurs. The company says its online tool is used today at the U.K.’s intelligence offices in Cheltenham, by NATO, the U.N., and the U.S. Defense Department.

Huddle’s been working on the DHS-intel community version since September, when the community’s non-profit investment partner, In-Q-Tel, decided to pour an undisclosed sum into it.

In-Q-Tel wouldn’t say how it got the idea to fund Huddle, but co-founder Alastair Mitchell said In-Q-Tel heard about the tool when Hillary Clinton found herself in a NATO-organized “Huddle” about policy in East Africa.

The State Department said it couldn’t immediately verify that account.

Huddle says the In-Q-Tel version of the technology – virtual machines running on NGA servers -- is just about ready for a series of pilot scenarios.

Huddle can’t do everything SharePoint can, like assemble and display complex decision trees for managers. But users can share documents within their team and get decisions signed-off on.

“We find that 80 percent of the users are satisfied with 20 percent of the functions” of SharePoint, said Andy McLoughlin, who founded the company with Mitchell.

Huddle’s toehold in the intel community has the makings of a David and Goliath tale.

McLoughlin and Mitchell aren’t boys, but they’re young. McLoughlin is 33 and on his third Internet startup. Mitchell is 36. Huddle has 200 employees compared to Microsoft’s 97,000.

Why would In-Q-Tel turn to a small company started by a couple young Brits who now live in San Francisco? Partly because that’s what In-Q-Tel does. It collects money from the intel agencies and spends it on young technologies. Google Earth famously started as an In-Q-Tel-funded software called Keyhole.

In this case, there was plenty of reason to look beyond SharePoint for some applications. SharePoint has a reputation for being difficult to use and it requires lots of contractors to set up and keep running. The Internet is loaded with job announcements seeking SharePoint developers with top secret/sensitive compartmented information clearances.

“You need professional administrators to make it work in a simple way,” said Neil Wasserman, an expert in collaborative technology at Timewave Analytics, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

If Microsoft is Goliath, the company doesn’t seem worried about the David in its midst. The company declined to comment for this article.

McLoughlin and Mitchell met as housemates in London, and stayed in touch. Both used SharePoint in their day jobs and found it cumbersome and unattractive.

“It was over a couple drinks one night where we said surely this is a problem that could be easily fixed,” McLoughlin said.

They were inspired by a project management software called Basecamp. They decided to make a new product that would be simple like Basecamp, but have the security and enterprise management strengths of SharePoint. “That was the genesis of Huddle,” McLoughlin said.

McLoughlin and Mitchell started the company in London but moved the headquarters to San Francisco.

Mitchell talks about the company’s U.S. breakthrough with an entrepreneur’s glee:

“If you told me five years ago that we would be working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and DoD; CIA; NGA, I would have laughed,” Mitchell said. “It’s awesome.”

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