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Microsoft, Google Struggle With New Face Of Collaboration

It struck me while getting a demo of'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.

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