Microsoft Cracks The Code On Social Software (Finally)

What makes software social? A fluid experience, as much as a news feed.
Microsoft can't merely merge Yammer features into SharePoint because the two are built on entirely different technology platforms. Exactly how the two will mesh remains to be seen, and about all Microsoft officials are saying now (with the transaction not yet officially closed) is that they're excited by the possibilities. I would expect that Yammer will tend to run ahead of SharePoint in delivering social features, like those that pop up one day on Facebook or Twitter and quickly spawn imitators adapted for business use. SharePoint appears to have caught up with many of the common features of a social feed, but that doesn't mean it won't start to fall behind again once the software is released. I still wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft wound up buying NewsGator and turning it into a product team that can iterate social features atop the SharePoint foundation, working ahead of the core SharePoint engineering team.

Yes, I can hear the competitors saying, "It's great that Microsoft has caught up to where we were three years ago. But they don't have feature X!" Ah, but does it matter? Microsoft is famous for its come-from-behind victories, eventually triumphing over the pioneers of the word processor, the spreadsheet, the browser. The question becomes, does feature X really matter, or is the Microsoft solution good enough?

Robert Lefferts, a group program manager on the SharePoint team, said the new Office technologies were built around a vision of the connected enterprise. The ways people want to get access to information "have grown up over the years, beyond email and IM, into microblogging and into really having network awareness. The SharePoint team has worked really hard into making sure we enable that," he said. He said he is particularly proud of the new SharePoint news feed, which now delivers all the standard features you'd expect, such as the ability to @mention another user (type the '@' symbol plus the first letters of someone's name to search the directory) and add hashtags to categorize posts, plus rich previews of documents, videos, and other media attached to posts.

"When I think about Yammer, I'm also very excited," Lefferts added. "They've clearly done a great job of capturing a dynamic and viral experience that's very compelling. I think of that as a huge complement in terms of strengths." While both enable social networking, "when you look at the depth SharePoint has in document management and enterprise content management and search and app infrastructure, those strengths really help a lot," he said.

When I spoke with Lefferts at Monday's Microsoft Office press event, he reminded me several times that he was giving the perspective of an engineering team leader, not the company's official marketing or business position. One of those reminders came when I asked where Yammer would fit, as a tool for a different audience or as a closer companion to SharePoint. "I think we're just starting to figure that out," he said. "We're just starting to look at, wow, look at all the things this brings to the table, and what are the synergies."

I asked Lefferts a question I ask a lot of people: what makes software social? Is it all about the feed and the profile picture, or is it more than that?

The Office team has put particular emphasis on creating a common way of representing the people who participate in any sort of communications or collaboration, with a standard pop-up contact card or "people card" that shows all the different ways you can interact with them online. "That contact card is consistent for how you see people across Lync and SharePoint and Outlook," Lefferts said. "That makes all the serendipitous experiences we've been talking about flow more easily."

Beyond that and the news feed, there are other expectations to be met with social software that go beyond the feed and the profile, Lefferts said. "There is a bunch of [user experience] stuff that is about making sure it is fluid--something you hear across Office again and again--but I think it also reflects a change in the way people work. There's a philosophy around it about openness, and a willingness to connect with people and documents. I do think there's a cultural shift under there."

Took them a while, but I think they've cracked the code.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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