David F. Carr
Microsoft Cracks The Code On Social Software (Finally)
Don't mistake this for an in-depth product review, because I'm really going on the demos from Microsoft's launch event for the forthcoming Office 2013 suite, including SharePoint 2013. I've also enjoyed a few days' worth of experimentation with the preview release of the next edition of Microsoft Office 365, which includes hosted access to SharePoint. I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot in coming months from competitors and other critics about where the holes are, and I do see some gaps in what Microsoft is promoting as a pervasive social experience across all the Office products. InformationWeek's Paul McDougall has his doubts about whether the emphasis on cloud and touch controls will win fans for this version of Office.
[ For the productivity suite's strong points, see Microsoft Office 2013: 10 Best Features.]
However, I also see many things that Microsoft has gotten right, which could allow it to take the focus off its deficiencies as a social software player and start emphasizing its strengths.
SharePoint has always been relevant to enterprise social networking discussions because it is so widely deployed as a document and content management system that every other enterprise social networking product had to have a strategy for integrating with SharePoint. If SharePoint itself can function as an enterprise social networking hub, many CIOs would see that as a great way to simplify their lives.
SharePoint 2010 had introduced some of the building blocks of a social experience, such as user profile pages, but didn't provide a respectable social news feed unless you layered on something like NewsGator's Social Sites, an enterprise social network that works with SharePoint as its foundation. When Microsoft announced last month that it was buying Yammer for $1.2 billion, some analysts took that as a sign that Microsoft had recognized that SharePoint would never be able to keep pace with the rate of change in social software the way a cloud product like Yammer could. Because SharePoint is an enterprise infrastructure product, new releases arrive about every three years, a deliberate pace that leaves plenty of time for testing and evaluating new technology so it can be deployed with minimal disruption to existing applications.
Yet when I spoke with NewsGator CEO J.B. Holston a few weeks ago about NewsGator's strategy following the Yammer acquisition, he told me he had already decided his company needed to get out of the business of merely "gap-filling" because he knew Microsoft was about to deliver a more complete social experience. I expect that there will still be room for NewsGator to add value with social features SharePoint alone doesn't deliver--for example, its video publishing and sharing--but Holston said he plans to put more energy into developing applications for specific industries.
I think we'll see Microsoft pursuing a two-track strategy, with Yammer as social software for startups, small businesses, and enterprises that are comfortable with the cloud, but continued investment in SharePoint as a social platform for organizations with an existing SharePoint investment and those who require SharePoint features that Yammer does not include. Ideally, the two engineering teams will get friendly enough to share ideas, if not technology.