Infrastructure // Unified Communications
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9/20/2011
04:20 PM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Facebook In A Shirt And Tie

Cloud-based collaborative project management sites like Podio combine the best of social software, SaaS.

Collaborative social software has become thoroughly mainstream. Both Facebook and Twitter have hundreds of millions of users, view numbers to rival Google's, and carefully curated pages for everyone from the Humane Society to Wal-Mart to your corner coffee house. Likewise, software as a service is an accepted software acquisition and deployment method. Snipes from IT fogeys to the contrary, you can't argue with the success of category-defining Salesforce.com. By IT's compressed timescale, both social collaboration and SaaS are mature trends, with Salesforce launched more than a decade ago and Facebook and Twitter both about a half dozen years old. That's several generations in Web years.

So what's next in the marriage between online, cloud-based applications and social software? And more importantly, how might these technologies reshape the way we all conduct business and interact? One hint at the future of enterprise collaboration is the emerging product category best described as collaborative project management software, prime examples of which are Basecamp, Podio, and Yammer. These cloud applications combine a SharePoint-like array of features with fresh, Web-based interfaces familiar to any Facebook user, all in a SaaS subscription service even the smallest business can afford. Yet if these were just SaaS SharePoint knock-offs, what's the point? Microsoft's already got that market covered with Office 365.

But herein lies the salient distinction: Whereas SharePoint largely just bolts a central file and messaging service onto existing document- or email-based business processes and workflows, this new generation of project collaboration replaces Excel spreadsheets and Outlook messages with online workspaces that are the enterprise equivalent of Facebook pages. In fact, you could think of these as Facebook for the business manager. Starting a project to launch a new product? Build a space and invite your colleagues. Tracking sales leads and customer contacts? There's an applet for that. And herein lies a powerful, distinguishing feature of these services: the ability to customize, extend, and share workspaces, even across organizations.

For example, Podio includes an array of prebuilt apps (available from an app store no less, at least until Apple sues for trademark infringement), organized by job function or business sector. Apps add structure to information within the workspace and include everything from tracking project deliverables and organizing meetings to managing FAQs and recording timesheets. Don't see anything that suits your precise needs? Podio lets you build your own app using a drag-and-drop interface reminiscent of Visual Basic or NetBeans. In the best of social software traditions, custom apps can be shared and modified by other Podio users -- in fact, most of the apps in the store came from end users, not Podio developers. Since the development process is drop-dead simple, apps are typically built by those who best understand a particular workflow or business process. To paraphrase a blog post by Michael Dean of Podio, the people building these apps are specialists, not software developers. If you see an app for marketing, someone in the marketing industry most likely built it.

Yammer is similarly extensible but lacks the drag-and-drop simplicity, exposing instead a RESTful API that requires actual down and dirty coding, something the typical marketing manager isn't going to do. While Basecamp can't be extended with full-blown apps, it does support templates that automate creation of new projects. Regardless of the implementation details, what such extensibility exploits is the wisdom of crowds to enhance the service over time -- sort of like applying the Wikipedia content-creation philosophy to SaaS.

The icing on all of these services is their embrace of today's mobile workforce. All include iPhone and Android apps (or a mobile-optimized HTML5 site, in the case of Basecamp) that provide a serviceable interface for the small screen. And since it's all in the cloud, any changes to a workspace made on your phone are instantly reflected in your desk-bound colleague's browser.

The elephant in the room that can't be ignored when evaluating any of these services is the fact that they are still relatively new companies, with rapidly evolving products and business models that might change overnight. While Basecamp and Yammer have been around awhile, Podio just launched, and long-term success isn't guaranteed for any of them. Before committing a lot of time, effort, and critical business information to any emergent SaaS product, prudence demands working with the vendor on a plan for data migration if things go south, as they did with this competing service. That said, being SaaS, trying them out costs nothing but time, and there's no long-term commitment.

As I take up covering the collaboration and communication arena in this Tech Center, I am interested to hear your experiences with innovative new products, whether these or others you've incorporated into your toolbox that have changed the way you interact and collaborate with co-workers. Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments section, and together we'll explore the frontiers of this dynamic corner of the IT world.

Get lessons from five companies on the front lines of implementing unified communications. Also in the new, all-digital supplement of Network Computing:Mike Fratto on how to make the case for UC. Download the supplement now. (Free registration required.)

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