Microsoft, Google Struggle With New Face Of Collaboration

Microsoft's Office 365 is not the future and neither is Google's Gdocs. But it just might be Facebook or Chatter.

Kurt Marko

November 14, 2011

5 Min Read
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It struck me while getting a demo of Salesforce.com's Chatter app: Facebook's three-panel page layout, dominated by a stream-of-consciousness jumping-off point for comment and discussion, is now the de facto standard for virtually every online collaboration site. As I wrote a couple of months ago when describing business-oriented collaboration services like Podio and Yammer, the next frontier in business communication looks a lot more like Facebook than it does SharePoint. So why does Microsoft, via Office 365, seem more focused on augmenting the traditional Office document and file-sharing paradigm with a cloud back end than on collaborating in the way that's become second nature to hundreds of millions of people?

IT seems to be registering its disapproval: As part of our forthcoming InformationWeek Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey, we asked 394 respondents at organizations using one or more internal social networking systems about vendors in use, then trended results from our August 2010 poll. While Microsoft and Google were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in both polls, Microsoft lost eight points year over year, while Google was essentially flat. IBM, in third place, also ticked down a few notches.

Fact is, despite the button-down business crowd's initial, and wholly predictable, dismissiveness that it amounted to little more than MySpace 2.0, Facebook has become the "face" of the Web, with 800 million users and counting. Everyone from corporate CEOs to local coffee shop owners seeking an online presence use it as an alternative to traditional Web sites. And it's changing the nature of collaboration.

By escalating their competitive battle into online productivity apps and recasting old-school productivity software suites as "collaboration tools," Microsoft and Google are violating the maxim to avoid fighting the last war. The notion of building browser-based tools to create elaborately formatted documents that users then share, by email or online document link, with a distinct group of people is completely out of step with today's ethos of wall posts littered with URLs; comment threads; and dynamic, self-organizing groups that often have little in common besides a shared friend--a sort of Kevin Bacon model of group identity with two or three degrees of separation instead of six.

Because technology, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and as my earlier column noted, there's no shortage of companies striving to fill the void as Google and Microsoft persist in shoehorning a '90s client-server collaboration model into the cloud-based social networking era. Which made me wonder: What if Facebook actually embraced the enterprise? And not just by positioning itself as another ad platform (as it's already done), but by enabling people to easily create private or business- or project-based networks and associated work personalities and making it convenient to toggle between two personas and selectively invite other Facebook users (or entire businesses for that matter) into your enterprise social space? This is much bigger than Facebook for Business, which is little more than a storefront using Facebook instead of a traditional website as a marketing platform. Conceptually, it's what Salesforce has done with Chatter, but instead of building on a platform with a couple million users, you're starting with one that's rapidly encompassing everyone in the developed world.

Salesforce gets that. "Facebook has trained 800 million users in how to collaborate, so we wanted to make it [Chatter] as much like Facebook as possible," says Scott Holden, senior director of product marketing for Chatter--which, incidentally, came in at No. 4 on our Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey vendor list in its first outing, with 11% share.Chatter indeed has the essence of this new collaboration vision down cold. Holden says its goal of creating a "social enterprise" translated into three key collaborative elements: social profiles for employees and customers, an employee social network, and the ability to invite customers into that network. Unlike SharePoint, with its hierarchical, centrally defined group structure, Holden insists that the social enterprise breaks down hierarchies. "Teams tend to form organically," he says.

And he's got statistical validation of the benefits of this Facebook-like form of enterprise collaboration. Chatter regularly surveys its more than 100,000 active corporate customers about the effects of this form of collaboration, and its findings are compelling. Users see email volume drop 30%, have 27% fewer meetings, and find relevant information 52% faster.

Of course, wall posts and drive-by micro-blog comments hardly complete the enterprise collaboration picture. People will still create and share rich content, but whether it's a PowerPoint deck, spreadsheet, or video, there's no reason these can't be either linked into a Facebook collaboration space or hosted there, much like the way Flickr and YouTube, respectively, serve as image and video repositories. And like any good cloud-based sharing service, users will be able to control who sees what, kind of like Dropbox. And while Dropbox spurned Apple, perhaps the company would see a marriage with Facebook, as a pillar of an upgraded collaboration platform, as one made in heaven.

As I mentioned in my earlier column on the new generation of enterprise collaboration software, the concern with most of these services (though not Salesforce) is that they come from relatively new companies, with rapidly evolving products and business models that might change overnight. That's a worry that an "enterprise Facebook" would assuage in an instant. Sure, it's a relatively new company, but one worth an estimated $50 billion.

Google clearly sees the Facebook threat, and Google+ is its latest attempt at gaining social networking street cred. However, the company is still focused on consumers, not businesses; for example, it has just started to integrate "+" into Google Apps (its Google+ Pages is just a Facebook for Business copycat--another business marketing tool).

Circling back to Microsoft, while it has made SharePoint much more social in recent releases by cloning the greatest hits from the Web 2.0 generation, SharePoint is still too wedded to Office in that it works best when used via a thick, local client. Its Web interface is clunky, and it lacks native mobile clients, a huge hole in the post-PC era. Microsoft is obviously protecting its lucrative Windows and Office franchises; however, this short-term, profit-maximizing thinking seems to be causing Redmond to once again miss a major technological upheaval--a replay of its myopia about mobile devices and Internet services like search and SaaS. While it's not too late for Microsoft to win the next generation of enterprise collaboration, I'm not convinced that Office 365 and SharePoint Online are the answer. The company had better wake up to the potential Facebook threat, because Google almost certainly will.

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