Have you seen Unison yet?

In case you hadn’t noticed, the eLearning development tool landscape changed significantly about a month ago. Rapid Intake released Unison, and now other vendors have to play catch up. For once it feels like a tool developer is actually paying attention to course developers and including features that make our lives easier.

I first blogged about Unison after seeing a demo of it at DevLearn 2007. Since then I’ve had a chance to beta test it, and have not been disappointed. Aside from creating media like graphics, sound and animation, Unison has all the tools I need to manage and develop eLearning courses in one user friendly package. But don’t take my word for it, sign-up for a free account and see for yourself, or attend the upcoming webinar on March 20, 2008.

What makes Unison so cool? For starters, Unison is much more than a course authoring tool; it’s an eLearning project management tool. It breaks the mold of traditional development tools by wrapping authoring, testing, issue tracking, and media management into a single, user friendly package. They’ve made it both easy and robust, something a lot of other tools vendor completely fail to do.

Because Unison is much more than a development tool, a full review would take a long time to write, and would probably be too long to read. For now I’ll just talk about the features that got my attention.

Web-Based Development

Unison has done something a little different. All you need to do to get started is log into the web site. Unison uses the Adobe Flex platform so all developers need to use Unison is the latest Flash plug-in. I tested it mostly in Firefox and never ran into browser issues. Being a web based tool means you have access from any computer with a network connection and don’t have to worry about backups, or upgrades.

Web-based applications are nothing new, Google and others have had them for a long time, but still most software is sold based on an installed license. Rapid Intake understands the old model of install-based licensing is a thing of the past, in much the same way the Apple understands brick-and-mortar music stores are a thing of the past.

What it means for you is simplicity. You can just work without being hassled with installation and managing licenses. Managing who has a license and where that license is installed has always been a hassle in every organization I’ve worked in. Unison frees me of that hassle.

Media Manager

Unison comes with a media manager that creates a library of all images, audio, video, and SWFs used in all your courses. Media can be uploaded from within a course or from the Media Manager tool on the main page. You can upload multiple files at once. Images are automatically converted to JPG files and sound files are automatically converted to MP3. You can choose the compression settings for both JPG and MP3 conversion. Video files are converted to FLV. I tested AVI, MOV, and MP4 files with no issues. Larger files take longer to upload and convert, but I was still impressed with the conversion speed for all media formats.

The Media Manager also allows you to tag files. Tags are essentially keywords that allow you to quickly locate files. The more media files you have, the more important tags become.

I found the Media Manager simple and intuitive. It doesn’t show thumbnails of images, but clicking any media file previews it in the Media Manager, including video, audio, and SWF files.

Issue Management

Simple and efficient. The issue management tool allows you to quickly enter issues, and then track and manage them. Additionally, issues can be assigned to specific developers. The issue entry form only has a few fields (title, description, assigned to, category, and priority) but automatically tracks the page in the course, timestamp, operating system, and browser version.

There are probably more robust issue/bug tracking tools available, but this one is integrated into the development tool and it has what I need without a lot of overhead – streamlined data entry and easy tracking and management.

Price

I’m not going to do a sales pitch here, but the price should make other vendors sit up and take notice. Plans start at Free and go up from there. Yes, free. All the plans include the full set of tools and add more support and capacity as the prices go up. When you add up the number developer licenses and support contracts you currently have for whatever tools you use and compare that to Unison’s pricing, you’ll see what I mean. You get a lot for the money.

Summary

Unison incorporates development and management tools into simple, elegant environment at an incredibly affordable price. There are tools with more robust features, but generally that adds complexity and makes them expensive. It’s not about having more features, it’s about having the right features. Unison has the right features. For the price, you will be hard pressed to find a tool that delivers as much as Unison.

Thanks to Garin Hess and Isaac Hess of Rapid Intake for giving me access to the beta version and putting up with all my questions during the beta test.

One last thing, Brent Schlenker thought he was the last to blog about Unison, but his post reminded me I needed to blog as well. Thanks Brent for the reminder.