Microsoft lags IBM in Social Software

All of those organisations trudging zombie-like towards implementation of Sharepoint as a social media solution might do well to read about the result of a ‘face-off’ between IBM’s Lotus Connections and Microsoft’s Sharepoint (MOSS 2007) products, as reported by CIO Magazine.

According to the article, whereas both vendors showed their products could integrate with existing e-mail systems (especially e-mail systems that they sell, such as Notes and Exchange), IBM’s Lotus Connections looked, at minimum, a year or more ahead of SharePoint in its social computing capabilities out of the box.

The guidelines for the face-off presentation were that the vendors present what a customer gets ‘out of the box’, i.e. without the third party plug-ins, or the extra products and professional services that (Sharepoint in particular) needs to make it a usable environment. The report states that as far as social computing goes, this wasn’t flattering for SharePoint.

The Sharepoint wiki was static and lacked robust version control and had sparse editing features. Microsoft’s MySites – social networking profiles for the enterprise – looked a little better but still left much to be desired in terms of design.

One example of the difference in presentation of the social computing tools was if someone wanted to examine their place within the hierarchy of an organization, it was presented textually like the inbox of an e-mail system. In IBM Connections, it was presented mostly with pictures of the people and big buttons in which to interact with them over e-mail, phone, or IM.

Clearly Microsoft realises it has to up its game if it is to be taken seriously in the social computing world, with partnerships with Atlassian and blueKiwi going some way to address the Sharepoint product limitations. Quite what this means in terms of providing the user with a fully integrated and seamless social computing environment I’m not sure. There is also the issue of cost, since presumably these partnerships will be licence-based and paid for by the customer on top of the Sharepoint licence. I just hope that the Finance Directors do the math before signing the contracts!

Personally, I’m doubtful that Sharepoint will ever be a pure social computing product. Its strengths are in task-based processes and information organisation, not community knowledge sharing and collaboration. However, and as always, I’m open to alternative views on this point!

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Microsoft’s Cloudy Vision

Cloud computing

Microsoft’s Windows Live efforts are the software giant’s answer to web applications and cloud computing. However, from where I stand, they’re less a cloud strategy than a layer of fog over the multibillion-dollar packaged software franchises that keeps Microsoft going.

Ray Ozzi, Microsoft’s chief software architect, seems to appreciate the scale of the task facing the software behemoth. In his interview with Om, he recognised that their legacy desktop applications were no longer the pivotal point for development: “A student today or a web start-up, they don’t actually start at the desktop. They start at the web, they start building web solutions, and immediately deploy that to a browser”

However, the various announcements about online versions of Exchange and Sharepoint, and the beta release of Office Live Workspace all seem to be distinctly underwhelming, and indicative of a “me too” mentality.

Users are getting more familiar with accessing web-based applications, and putting increasing trust in the likes of Google for providing secure services. From a personal perspective, I’m fed up with having to keep patching (mainly Microsoft) applications on my desktop, and finding Windows Vista runs ever more slowly each day (and that’s when it doesn’t crash and burn). I’ve resisted upgrading to MSOffice 2007 because quite frankly, I don’t need the extra features, and am making gradually more use of Google Docs and OpenOffice.  I’ve also started to dabble with Google Apps, and am in the process of migrating all my Outlook email and contact management to the Google environment, hence my reliance on Microsoft is diminishing by the day (unfortunately will be stuck with the Operating System for a while yet though).

Whether things like Foldershare or Skydrive will buy any time for Microsoft I don’t know, but the ad hoc nature of these ‘software plus’ services,  the small enhancements to its email and collaboration applications, plus some tweaks that let users access Office documents while away from their main PC,  doesn’t collectively strike me as being part of a major strategic rethink in how best to address the web-based picture. It certainly doesn’t appear to be tapping into the power and potential of cloud computing that the likes of Google and Amazon have been forging ahead with. Whether Microsoft’s failure to present a cohesive and compelling strategy is ultimately going to be fatal for them remains to be seen. They do have the benefit of a cash mountain behind them, so I guess they could buy themselves into anything (but not sure that Yahoo is the answer either!). However, I think it’s a bit like turning an oil tanker, and in the meantime Google has docked and is unloading the goods. Interesting times ahead I think

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Web 2.0 – The Sharepoint Fallacy

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I guess most people choose the conferences they attend with care. There’s nothing worse than having shelled out good money (my own in most instances since I work as an independent consultant) on a 2-day conference when you realise within the first day that the general level of knowledge and expertise is at best equivalent to your own, and at worst, somewhere below your own level of competence. In other words, you’re not going to learn anything you didn’t already know. I accept there are still networking opportunities to be had, but this doesn’t always compensate for the time and money you’ve already invested in attending the event.

I was intrigued therefore by the recent avalanche of fliers and emails I’ve received since the start of the New Year advertising conferences on the general topic of ‘Web 2.0 in Government’. Even more intriguing was that most of the speakers seem to be from various (UK) government departments, and not – as I might have expected – renowned and acknowledged experts from academia or the private sector. Please excuse my cynicism, but I’m not sure how much I would have gained from one particular session entitled “Web 2.0 – was is it?” that was being led by a senior civil servant from the Home Office.

On digging a little deeper into the backgrounds of some of the ‘expert’ presenters, I found a fairly common theme – they have all implemented Sharepoint somewhere within their departments (usually their Intranet).

I find this slightly worrying from a professional point of view since some delegates at these conferences may come away with the perception that Sharepoint is an exemplar for Web 2.0 technology. I’ll admit that Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server 2007 – or MOSS 2007 – is a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor (Sharepoint 2003), but if anyone seriously thinks that the integration of a few collaboration tools and an improved content management system make this a serious contender for ‘Web 2.0 application of the year’ then they are sadly misinformed.

I can’t quite put my finger on why (once again) Microsoft have got it so wrong, other than they have taken a simple concept (networking and collaboration) and made it so complex to implement. What would take weeks to set up using MOSS can be implemented on something like Ning in a matter of hours. They also appear to have missed (or misunderstood) the difference between teamwork collaboration (which MOSS can do fairly well) with the development and support of communities of interest or communities of practice etc. In particular, the cost and complexity of using MOSS for supporting unbounded communities would be phenomenal – and why would anyone bother to even contemplate doing so when there are ‘proper’ Web 2.0 products out there such as Ning (previously mentioned, Community Server, Blogtronix or the hundreds of others too numerous to mention?

Maybe it’s a case of re-applying the old adage that “no-one ever got sacked for buying IBM” to Microsoft. However, I feel that some organisations will be regretting their choice very soon, and particularly if they really want to exploit the ‘community’ approach to learning and sharing – as we’ve done for the communities of practice in local government.

So – choose your conferences well. Unless you adopt a blended learning approach, where conferences are just one of many information sources, you may not know when you are being misinformed!

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Social Networking with Sharepoint Server 2007 – a limited solution to a wider business requirement

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The most comprehensive summary I’ve read so far on Microsoft’s foray into social networking via their Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server 2007 (MOSS 2007) product. The article is an extract from a forthcoming white paper written by three Microsoft gurus – Eric Charran, Dino Dato-on and Greg Lang.

The article seems a bit too preoccupied with the profiles, active directory and people search facilities at the expense of how they’ve implemented tools such as RSS, wikis and blogs. However, it does seem to be a vast improvement over the facilities offered on Sharepoint 2003. Given the usual complexity that Microsoft seem to automatically build into the deployment of any of their products, it looks like it could meet the  social networking requirements of most organisations, provided that networking and collaboration is limited to within the organisation’s firewall. My guess is that it would be hugely expensive to deploy as a social networking solution across and between organisations,  e.g. for connecting councils in local government or for collaboration between agencies and learning providers in the education sector. Sector-wide social networking solutions for business still seem to be limited platforms such as GovX or I&DeA, and products such as Blogtronix and CommunityServer. Still, given the huge investment that many organisations have already made in Microsoft’s Office products, I anticipate a huge take-up for MOSS 2007. I just hope they’ll also recognise its limitations for (social) networking outside the firewall.

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