The platform vendors tend to have trouble keeping up with the pace of innovation set by the startups in this market, Byrne said. For example, SharePoint is updated on three year release cycle, in sync with Microsoft Office. Many of the software as a service cloud products are updated more like every three months, to the point where those vendors have to be careful not to overwhelm customers with too much change, he said.
"These are cool tools, but frequently immature," Byrne said, adding that industry boosters and the press "tend to give these vendors a pass because what they're doing is so cool and innovative." Buyers must understand that in software, or software as a service, there are always tradeoffs. "The question is not is this an awesome technology, but is it a good fit for you. The faster, looser vendors like Yammer and SocialText are relatively young companies with relatively young technologies. They make mistakes you'd think would be obvious, and they will not always support you as well as you would like," he said.
Jive Software is "the darling of the bunch because it was actually able to IPO," but it has its own challenges, Byrne said. Jive splits its attention between software for managing public communities and enterprise social networking for private communities, he said. The company has also struggled to maintain a common platform it can use for both cloud delivery of its product and sales of traditional enterprise software. Customers are often surprised to find that Jive has a fairly complex product, which may even require some skills like Java programming for customization and configuration.
In general, social software vendors are more focused on creating user-facing features that demo well than they are on administration and other qualities that are important to large organizations. For example, NewsGator Social Sites is popular as an application built on top of SharePoint that adds a richer suite of social features. But where NewsGator falls down is in anticipating the needs of large, international enterprises – for example, by failing to make some elements of its user interface easy to translate and localize for use outside the U.S., Byrne said.
"I have a lot of criticisms of the big vendors, but they're very careful about that sort of thing. When they deliver a product, they will deliver it with local language versions across dozens of languages," he said.
Social software startups are also divided among multiple camps. Jive is a social software suite with tools for blogs, wikis, activity streams, and several other modes of social interaction. Other products like Socialcast, Tibco's Tibbr and Salesforce.com's Chatter are designed to add a layer of social interaction on top of other applications. Yammer is also moving in that direction, Byrne said, although he still considers it more of a specialty microblogging platform – stemming from its introduction as an "enterprise Twitter." Other software in the specialty category includes WordPress, an open source blogging product that many enterprises use in favor of the blogging tools provided in SharePoint or Jive. "WordPress is so good many enterprises will use it on their intranets even though it's not integrated," Byrne said.
When evaluating these products, it's best not to create "checkbox RFPs" that allow vendors check off all the features they provide, Byrne said. Rather, ask how they address those requirements, seeking to tease out details on the differences between platforms. Focusing too much on software features is a mistake, when you really should be trying to identify a match for the specific types of collaboration you want to facilitate. For example, if your top priority was coordinating project teams, that might lead you to choose a different product than if your biggest need was to get knowledge workers at locations around the world networking and collaborating together.
Those who feel like they're running behind at making sense of social software shouldn't feel too bad," Byrne said. "If you look across the marketplace, most organizations, most of the time, are still experimenting. A lot of people who took the lead early on have really, really, really skinned their knees. I would argue these are still early days," he said.