"The enterprise social space is hot," Jared Spataro, Microsoft's senior director of SharePoint product marketing, said in an interview. With Forrester Research forecasting that enterprise social software will grow into a $6.4 billion market by 2016, Microsoft is paying attention. At the same time, Spataro cited a Gartner prediction (which appears to be a couple of years old) that 70% of IT-led social media projects will fail. Microsoft wants to help its customers "avoid that trap" and provide them with a blueprint for success, he said.
"Our vision of social is that it should really put people at the center of business. It's not social for social's sake, it's really task completion--how to get specific tasks done and how to interact with the organization," Sparato said.
Although Microsoft previously has not jumped in with both feet, apparently it has been watching and waiting. The pace of innovation and turmoil in the social software market is starting to slow, "so now the focus moves from just being on features to business value," Sparato said. "I think the timing is actually quite good for us to think hard about investing." In a survey Microsoft commissioned from Harris Interactive, more than 50% of the organizations venturing into social software said they were just getting started, he said.
"Our point of view is that social is incredibly important--it's not just a fad; it really will change where work gets done," he said. However, it's now time to "stop focusing so much on features as on the entire experience as presented to a customer, partner, or employee." The total experience Microsoft delivers will be "more than just SharePoint," also including elements from Microsoft Lync unified communications and Microsoft Office.
To date, the software companies making the most noise about social software have been specialized ones such as Jive Software, which enjoyed a public stock offering in December, or Yammer, with its cloud-hosted, freemium alternative. The best-respected product from an established enterprise vendor probably is IBM Connections.
SharePoint is so broadly deployed as an enterprise collaboration and file-sharing technology that every social collaboration platform needs some sort of plugin of connectivity widget for it. Vendors such as Neudesic and Telligent make that one of their primary selling points, while NewsGator Social Sites is the best-known social networking application that runs as an application atop SharePoint. However, by itself SharePoint is often characterized as an inadequate social platform, even though it provides the basics of activity stream updates and personal profile pages.
Social software is "a very big investment area" for Microsoft right now, "We're working on our next product now, but we're not ready to talk about it yet," Sparato said. The next big step with be a public beta covering multiple products in the Microsoft collaboration and productivity product line over the summer, he said. He did not directly answer the question of whether Microsoft would acquire a company such as NewsGator or replicate its software, although he spoke about a likely wave of consolidation in the market.
"We've tried really hard not to just be a follower of the fad," Spataro said. "Social is certainly a very frothy area right now--whether consumer or enterprise--and part of our job is to take these great technologies and sift the wheat from the chaff," producing "solid technologies and excellent products for our customers," he said.
In the Harris Interactive survey, 90% of respondents cited security as a top concern with social software, followed by integration with existing systems (66%) and compliance (53%). "That's very consistent with the way we think about the platform," Sparato said. Survey findings also reflect an interest in integration with, and taking advantage of, existing IT infrastructure that might tend to favor SharePoint-based solutions.