Yammer Drums Up Tight Microsoft Office Integration
Purchase of OneDrum adds file sync and collaborative editing of Office documents with no need for plugins.
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With the acquisition of a 10-person software company from Scotland, Yammer believes it's about to vault ahead of competitors in the race to revolutionize work on the Web--even when the work is done in Microsoft Office.
Yammer has purchased OneDrum, creator of a cloud service that combines folder-based file sync in the mode of Dropbox with the kind of real-time collaborative editing popularized by Google Docs--except that you can do your work inside Microsoft Office rather than through a Web-based editor. Yammer will combine the OneDrum software with its enterprise social network, creating file synchronization folders on the user's hard drive that correspond with Yammer collaboration groups. Yammer promises users will be able to move smoothly between finding and commenting on files in the Web application and viewing or editing them in Office. Any sort of files can be synchronized through this method, and OneDrum's technology for collaborative editing is also not necessarily limited to Office, although that's where the emphasis will be initially.
Yammer plans to deliver file synchronization this summer, with collaborative editing of Office documents to follow in the fall. Pricing and packaging haven't yet been determined, but "there will probably be some premium component" to getting the additional features, Yammer co-founder and CTO Adam Pisoni said.
"From the beginning, we've been trying to bring social into the enterprise as a social layer across all enterprise applications, a common conversational layer, but you also need a common content layer," Pisoni said. Microsoft Office remains the dominant application for creating and editing business content, and email remains the dominant mechanism for sharing those documents, despite all efforts to create centralized content repositories and collaboration portals, he said. "Even at Yammer, we do a lot of moving files around because it's not integrated with our workflow."
With the OneDrum technology, every member of a Yammer group will have local copies of all the files shared through that group. Once the Office integration is delivered, users will be able to click on a link to a file and have it open instantly on their desktops--no need for a download, because it's already there--make changes, and have it synched back to the group repository. Two or more members could open the file at the same time and work on the file simultaneously, seeing each other's changes appear in the document as they work.
"You can collaborate in real time, just like with Google Docs, but you can do it inside Microsoft Office--and without any plugin inside Microsoft Office," Pisoni said.
No plugin is required because OneDrum's desktop software operates at the level of the file system, where it detects new files that need to be synchronized and uses the Windows object model to connect to the Office applications. In other words, it acts more like a Visual Basic application that integrates with software components from the Office suite than like a plugin. Pisoni said the feedback he gets from IT managers is that "Office plugins are good in theory but bad in practice" because they alter the Office user experience and often break when Microsoft releases upgrades. That makes OneDrum's less intrusive approach attractive, he said.
When the user is done editing and saves a file, Yammer will generate an activity feed item notifying other members of the group, Pisoni said. OneDrum also provides the ability to add social comments to a file or specific elements of that file--for example, commenting on a cell in Excel or a slide in a PowerPoint deck.
Excel and PowerPoint are actually the only two Office applications for which OneDrum has all these capabilities in production, as its Word integration is still in beta. Production delivery of these features is also limited to Windows, although OneDrum's Website mentions a beta product for Mac.
I spoke to Jasper Westaway, founder and CEO of OneDrum, in December, but I didn't write about it at the time because the company and its product seemed to be at such an early stage of development. Westaway said he started with the assumption that although Web applications are relatively easy to build, Web apps that reproduce all the content creation and editing capabilities of desktop software are extremely difficult.
"If you look at applications like Photoshop, it's crazy to try to move those to the Web just because you want a collaborative component," Westaway said. His answer is to use the Web and the desktop together for what each is best at. OneDrum has prototyped collaborative editing for Photoshop and other applications. Pisoni said OneDrum has also experimented with mixed editing of spreadsheets, with one user in Excel and another in a Google Docs spreadsheet.
Because Microsoft Office is so omnipresent in the workplace, software vendors who want to revolutionize the way work gets done need a strategy for embracing it. Last May, Jive Software acquired OffiSync as a way of linking social messaging to Outlook, and for that development team's expertise in integration with Microsoft products. In August, Cisco bought Versly, maker of a plugin that adds a collaboration sidebar to Office documents. These are just a couple of examples of a broad trend.
Yammer has also developed a Google Docs-style collaborative editor for its Yammer Pages product, but Pisoni said he sees that serving a different need from the OneDrum technology. "That's more for collaborative Web page documents," he said. "The reality is most documents are Word documents--or PowerPoint, or Excel--and most people live in Office. The ability to bring that to where they're working, without change apps or processes, was too good to pass up."
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