Microsoft's Maturing Social Computing "EGO"

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 30, 2008

8 Min Read

When Microsoft first released Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS 2007), it touted the platform advantages of its embedded social computing capabilities (i.e., blogs, wikis, RSS, social networking). In fact, the company at the time was brimming with confidence that SharePoint's social computing features were as good as anything offered by best-of-breed vendors. Reality slowly set in over several months however as the market were somewhat less-than-impressed with the features that SharePoint offered out-of-the-box. While SharePoint has garnered tremendous success in terms of user adoption (people invest in the platform for reasons much broader than blogs, wikis and social networks), many IT organizations were left to wonder if they would have to wait three years before seeing significant improvements that would support business requirements related to social computing.Microsoft countered by delivering the Community Kit Edition via CodePlex which improved the default capabilities within MOSS. However, three concerns arose: (1) the source code on CodePlex is not supported by Microsoft, (2) the code does not go through the same quality assurance checks as supported products, and (3) there is no guarantee that whatever is found on CodePlex will be supported in future releases. At best, the Community Kit Extensions were best viewed as acquiring an advanced customized application that would be primarily supported by internal staff.So, after Strike 1 and Strike 2, Microsoft has finally done what it should had done in the first place. The slew of partner announcements this month at the Enterprise 2.0 conference have significantly improved the partner ecosystem around SharePoint for social computing. While I believe Microsoft was basically "backed into" this position by market and competitive pressures (made worse by sub-optimal social software), the strategy should indeed provide customers with a broad set of social computing options that leverage and extend a core SharePoint platform investment.It is unfortunate that this message was so badly overpowered by the social computing tutorial I moderated at the event where IBM came across very impressively with its Lotus Connections solution. Overall, Microsoft's maturing perspective of its role regarding technology stewardship over the SharePoint ecosystem will benefit end users and IT organizations alike. While introducing new vendors, even those that are well-integrated with SharePoint, will raise infrastructure and operational complexity to varying degrees - ultimately, the ability to deliver more complete and robust social applications should create a credible business case that justifies the effort (for those holistically committed to a SharePoint platform).One of the more serious considerations organizations need to now consider will be the balancing act between SharePoint (increasingly part of a corporate-wide strategic direction) and the partner solutions (which might be narrowly viewed as tactical). However, if Microsoft fails to improve its native capabilities by the next release (perhaps 4Q09/1Q10), prior tactical decisions might very well have more strategic implications. Organizations cannot assume that partners will necessarily disappear "just because" the next release of SharePoint has some level of improvement since the market overall will continue to advance. In some ways, Microsoft will always be behind the curve given its three year release cycle between major releases. This is due, in part, to the early stage where Microsoft locks-down what ultimately will be shipped).It is important therefore for IT organizations to understand how partner solutions are integrating within SharePoint and how they function without SharePoint. Below I outline three types of integration models that appear to be taking shape. Note the acronym "EGO" helps summarize the different approaches vendors seem to be adopting thus far. It also plays well to Microsoft's maturing outlook on this space (that its own success vs. its "alter ego's" is dependent on how well partners thrive in the short run).EnhancementThe Enhancement integration model augments SharePoint's basic social computing capabilities but the solution's benefits and capabilities are centric to SharePoint and are not likely to be easily duplicated to work with other vendors. That is, a vendor's Enhancement integration model makes many fundamental assumptions that bind it to SharePoint. There is little chance of the solution acting as a means to mediate interoperability needs between SharePoint and other social computing platforms (e.g., IBM, Jive, Oracle) that might also be deployed within the enterprise.

Example (refer to this "how we did it" post)NewsGator Social Sites 2.0 connects Microsoft SharePoint and Newsgator's Enterprise Server to add a collection of capabilities (e.g., tags, bookmarks, communities, social networking). Social Sites relies on Microsoft SharePoint AJAX Toolkit (found on CodePlex). Reliance on the AJAX toolkit commits this solution more deeply to SharePoint. It relies on, and extends, the user profile information in SharePoint (another product-specific dependency). NewsGator introduces a new feed reader (My Feeds) with Social Sites and it is unclear how unique this reader is to SharePoint (so for now, I assume that it is only for SharePoint). The community capability extends the Team Site capability within SharePoint (another dependency if Social Sites were to be duplicated for other vendors). So while Social Sites 2.0 represents a very solid and much-needed social computing extension for SharePoint, I would categorize it as an Enhancement model given the deep level of integration specific to SharePoint.

GatewayA Gateway integration model also extends SharePoint's social computing capabilities. The primary difference between a Gateway and Enhancement approach is that the Gateway's focus is primarily on attaining some level of interoperability with SharePoint. That is, the vendor's Gateway solution offers value in both a stand-alone situation as well as with SharePoint if Microsoft's social computing platform is deployed.

Example (refer to this "how we did it" post)Connectbeam's Spotlight Connect For SharePoint connects Microsoft SharePoint with Connectbeam's tag and social bookmark system. Spotlight For SharePoint relies on Web Parts that leverage Connectbeam's REST-based APIs. While Connectbeam integrates with SharePoint to deliver tag and bookmark capabilities, the integration is careful to maintain a level of technical separation while still providing a cohesive user experience. For instance, a My Profile Web Part shows user profile data from SharePoint along with tag, bookmark and other data from Connectbeam but tabs are used to segment the standard user profile display. Rather than dump the information all into the "About Me" area, the Spotlight data is contained with a tab labeled "Social Content". I can envision how Connectbeam can deliver specific integration with other social computing platforms (e.g., Spotlight For Oracle, Spotlight for SAP, Spotlight for Jive). This approach leads me to categorize this integration model as more of a Gateway solution. The Connectbeam application can stand alone, integrate with SharePoint, and possibly integrate with other platforms in the future.Atlassian, Awareness, Telligent and blueKiwi are also examples of vendors adopting a Gateway integration model.

OverlayThe Overlay integration model represents the deepest level of integration to extend SharePoint's social computing capabilities. In essence, a vendor pursuing this approach begins to use SharePoint itself as its base infrastructure platform. That is, the solution essentially "lives within" SharePoint. This integration model differs significantly from the Enhancement and Gateway model since the vendor becomes almost entirely dependent on SharePoint. There may be some distinct functions kept outside SharePoint (e.g., database) to enable the vendor to deliver functions not possible within SharePoint's current set of services.

Example (refer to this "how we did it" post)There is no vendor that currently has the depth of social computing integration that would quality it as delivering an Overlay model. Tomoye however is heading in that direction:"Since Ecco is a pure 100% ASP.NET 2.0 application with lots of business logic, we are experimenting with porting our application straight into SharePoint as a "_layouts application." This will allow us to keep leveraging our existing code as we transition to using more and more of the capabilities in the SharePoint platform such as Lists, Document and Picture Libraries, User Profiles, and the Business Data Catalog. So far, this approach has been easier than expected. Within only 3 days, we were able to deploy our application as a _layouts application and to run as-is with very little code changes!

Alter-Ego'sFor every EGO there is an equal and opposite "Alter Ego". These are a few key vendors that are battling Microsoft in terms of delivering an enterprise-grade social computing platform that spans multiple capabilities (e.g., blog, wikis, tags/bookmarks, feeds and social networking).IBM: Lotus Connections represents the most well-known alternative to Microsoft. IBM and Microsoft have been battling head-to-head in the collaboration and content markets for many years - it should be no surprise that the competition will be equally intense in the area of social computing.Jive Software: Clearspace represents the first independent vendor to deliver a cohesive mini-suite of social computing capabilities that has enabled it to break away from the pack of smaller vendors who have focused on just a few select social software components.Oracle: Oracle should be considered a credible social computing dark horse. Although the software company has failed in previous attempts to succeed in the collaboration market, it has gained credibility in the enterprise content management space. Given the trend towards contextually integrating social data and features within existing applications, it should be expected that Oracle will make a run at this market.

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