Tag Archives: functionality

Lotusphere 2012: IBM Demonstrates the Power of the Platform, Simplified

This entry was cross-posted from Meanders: The Dow Brook Blog.

Software analysts and buyers have historically favored platforms over application suites and stand-alone applications. Why? Because platforms offer both a rich set of pre-integrated functionality and the ability to add or build new features and applications, some of which may be extensively customized for an organization.

IBM has long been considered a platform provider of enterprise software, particularly in the infrastructure and middleware categories. More recently, IBM has evolved from being a vendor of a collaboration suite (Quickr) to a provider of multiple integrated, extensible offerings for enterprise collaboration, social networking, messaging, content sharing and management, and customer- and employee-facing web experience management. IBM’s vision for for this confederation of offerings, codenamed ‘Project Vulcan’, was first articulated at Lotusphere 2010. Last year’s Lotusphere presented initial, limited evidence that the vision was becoming reality.

Lotusphere 2012, held last week, showcased IBM’s latest efforts at unifying its interaction platform. IBM previewed the upcoming releases of its Connections, Notes/Domino, and Customer and Intranet Web Experience offerings. As one would expect from a platform software provider, each of these products works with the others out of the box. However, IBM, has gone beyond merely providing integration between the separate offerings by embedding functionality from each into the others. For example, IBM customers who have licensed both Connections and Notes will soon be able to send and receive email from within Connections, and, conversely, consumers will be able to view and interact with the Connections activity stream from within Notes.

The increasing power of the IBM interaction platform was further underscored by demonstrations of related, integrated and embedded functional services from its Quickr collaboration, Content Manager and FileNet enterprise content management, and Cognos analytics offerings. This extended scope of the Project Vulcan vision is what sets IBM apart from other platform software vendors, and it was good to see IBM articulating and demonstrating that differentiation at Lotusphere.

Death of a Tradeoff

We, as an industry, have assumed the existence of a tradeoff between rich functionality and simple, intuitive user experiences. Conventional wisdom says that as more features are added, the resulting complexity degrades the user experience, forcing software architects and designers to find an optimal balance between functionality and usability. The tradeoff has traditionally been managed in one of two ways: 1) by creating simple, single-purpose applications that are not overloaded with functionality, or 2) by partitioning functionality into multiple, related applications in a suite. Platforms have largely not attempted to manage this tradeoff at all for developers/designers, administrators, or consumers. Not only is the platform’s complexity on full display; it is generally promoted as a benefit.

IBM’s implementation of its Project Vulcan vision has, for perhaps the first time, obviated the long-held tradeoff between functionality and ease-of-use at the platform level. The versions of Connections, Notes/Domino, and the Web Experience offerings that where announced and demonstrated at Lotusphere 2012 (and will be released over the course of this year) are both feature-rich and highly usable. Each offering has had its user interface redesigned, yielding a cleaner look that is more consistent across the interaction platform. Additionally, the new user interface designs are simpler than their predecessors and, in effect, minimize the complexity created by IBM’s extended integration and embedding of functionality from related software offerings.

This harmonious co-existence of broad, advanced functionality and a consumer-friendly computing experience is what makes IBM’s interaction platform really different and powerful. The first public glimpse of this next-generation enterprise software came during the Lotusphere 2012 Opening General Session, when Connections Next was demonstrated by its Lead Project Manager, Suzanne Livingston. My reaction, a tweet that was later displayed before the beginning of the Closing General Session, sums up the impact of IBM’s work on its interaction platform over the last year:

Dow Brook’s Point-Of-View

While there is more work to be done, IBM should be proud of the next-generation interaction platform it is bringing to market. Lotusphere 2012 demonstrated that IBM is in good position to be a provider of choice for social business software. The work that they’ve done over the last year strongly differentiates their interaction platform and should positively affect its adoption by customers. IBM’s refusal to acknowledge the old, limiting tradeoff between platform complexity and user experience should accelerate the consolidation of the Enterprise Social Software market in the second half of 2012. It may also more firmly establish IBM as a leader in the Web Experience software category and spark renewed interest in its Notes/Domino messaging and Sametime unified communications offerings.

Disclosure: IBM is a client of Dow Brook’s Insight OnDemand subscription advisory service and paid the author’s registration and hotel expenses related to Lotusphere 2012 attendance.

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Lotusphere 2011: IBM at a Crossroads

This entry was cross-posted from Meanders: The Dow Brook Blog

I was fortunate to attend Lotusphere 2011 (#ls11) last week in its entirety, quite by accident. I was scheduled to leave after the official program for analysts ended at Noon on Wednesday, but Mother Nature buried Massachusetts in about 18 inches of snow that day. My flight home was canceled, and I was rebooked on another one leaving Friday night. As a result, I was able to have some additional meetings with IBM executives and other attendees, and to soak in more conference sessions.

Attending the entire conference enriched me with perspective on several areas of both Lotus’ and IBM’s larger business strategy and offerings. I will summarize what I learned in this post, with the goal of perhaps exploring some of the individual topics further in subsequent posts.

IBM and Social Business

To the surprise of many in attendance, a strong, vocal embrace of the concept of social business came not only from all the Lotus Vice Presidents, but from a senior corporate-level IBM executive as well. SVP of Marketing Jon Iwata spoke at a keynote session entitled “Becoming a Social Business”. While he eloquently  and passionately spoke about how IBM is rapidly becoming a social business itself, he also told a story that revealed a strong, and nearly unanimous, level of initial resistance from the company’s senior leadership team.

Another conflicting signal was the marketing strategy revelation that the Social Business positioning (and budget) is buried inside of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, which will potentially minimize the impact of the social business message to IBM customers and the broader market. The nested positioning suggests to me that there are still those among IBM’s leadership that are not ready bet the company on social business.

Lotus Software Portfolio Integration

The Lotus division has executed very well to make parts of the Project Vulcan vision introduced last year at Lotusphere real and available to customers. The general session presentations made it clear that Lotus Notes is intended to be the primary interface through which IBM’s integrated collaboration and social functionality will be exposed. However, IBM also articulated and demonstrated that its “Social Everywhere” strategy, which was presented at Lotusphere 2010, is very much alive and well. That was done by talking about and showing the following integrated solutions.

Exceptional Web Experience

The Exceptional Web Experience solution is made tangible in software through the Customer Experience Suite (CES), which was launched in November 2010. The CES combines portal, content management, commerce, forms, analytics, and other software assets from multiple IBM brands into an offering that enables the rapid design, monitoring, and customization of customer-facing websites.

At Lotusphere, IBM demonstrated momentum for this young initiative by featuring customer testimonials as a key piece of a general session entitled “Client Panel – Exceptional Web Experience”, as well as in individual breakout sessions. These customer presentations communicated specific business performance and ROI results attributable to CES use. This data was great to see, and it made a compelling argument for the CES. It also left me wishing that we had comparable data regarding the use of IBM social software inside of organizations.

Exceptional Work Experience

IBM does have a parallel initiative to the Exceptional Web Experience in the works, but has not yet announced a solution bundle for it. The Exceptional Work Experience initiative will focus on enabling social collaboration within organizations. It most likely will feature software assets from various IBM brands, including Lotus (Connections and Quickr) Enterprise Content Management (Content Manager and FileNet), Websphere (Portal), SPSS, Cognos, and Coremetrics.

At Lotusphere 2011, IBM used the term “Exceptional Work Experience” in session labels and in content presented during sessions, but never defined an offering. As a result, some customers that I spoke with were confused about IBM’s strategy for supporting social business within organizations. IBM will need to quickly clarify that strategy and announce a holistic, enabling solution along the lines of the Customer Experience Suite to better support its customers’ efforts to transform internal operations in line with social business principles.

Social Content Management

IBM sowed confusion in another area as well at Lotusphere 2011. In a breakout session given by IBM employees, entitled “Extending Social Collaboration with Enterprise Content”, IBM introduced a new positioning for its combined enterprise social and content management capabilities – “Social Content Management”. This is a market positioning statement, not a branded solution, that features integration between Lotus social/collaboration applications and technologies from IBM’s Enterprise Content Management group. The presenters defined Social Content Management as seamless content creation and collaboration, in social & ECM environments, supported by open standards.

In reality, there was little new other than the category label, as both the vision and specific technology integrations presented were a rehash of Lotusphere 2010 content. The session presenters articulated and demonstrated how organizations can manage content created in social software (Lotus Quickr and Connections) with the same IBM technologies currently used to manage documents (IBM Content Manager and FileNet).

The one new piece of information in this session was a bit of a shocker – IBM does not believe that CMIS is usable in its current state. The session presenters said that the CMIS standard is not mature enough yet for them to use it to provide the depth of integration they can with proprietary connectors. Therefore, for now, IBM will continue to integrate its social and content management technologies via proprietary code, rather than using the open standard (CMIS) that the company’s own definition of Social Content Management prescribes. This is especially surprising because IBM is one of the founding members of the OASIS CMIS Technical Committee, along with EMC and Microsoft.

Enhancements to Individual Lotus Collaboration Offerings

IBM’s strategy is to create multiple points of integration between its social, collaboration, and content management offerings (among others), but it will continue to sell individual products alongside the solution bundles it is creating. The company announced a number of upcoming functional enhancements to its products at Lotusphere 2011.

Lotus Connections

Lotus Connections 3.0 was released in on November 24, 2010, bringing enhancements in the areas of social analytics, Communities, stand-along Forums, mobility, and cloud delivery. IBM executed well on this release, bringing to market everything it had announced at Lotusphere 2010.

The next release of Connections, due in Q2, will introduce Communities and Forum moderation capabilities, a photo and video gallery with sharing features, idea blogs, and the integration of Communities with ECM repositories. Additional functionality, including an Event Aggregator that brings events from other enterprise applications into Lotus applications’ activity streams, shared walls and calendars in Communities, in-context viewing of documents on the Home page, and improved adoption tracking metrics and reporting, will be released later in 2011 (most likely during Q4.)

The most important announcement concerning Lotus Connections made at Lotusphere was not about home-grown functionality. IBM announced a partnership with Actiance (formerly FaceTime) that will immediately make available to IBM customers the Actiance Compliance Module for IBM Lotus Connections. This module will enable organizations in regulated industries to define and apply social media policies, as well as monitor social content in real-time for compliance with those policies. It was important for IBM to fill this gap in Connections functionality, because Big Blue has many customers in the financial services sector, and other  regulated industries, that have taken a very cautious approach to adopting social software. The Actiance partnership should help increase IBM’s sales of Lotus Connections to marquee customers.

Lotus Quickr

There was relatively little news regarding Lotus Quickr at Lotusphere 2011. It was most often mentioned as an integration point with Lotus Connections, IBM Content Manager, and FileNet. There was a breakout session on “What’s New in Lotus Quickr Domino 8.5”, but it merely rehashed the new features that were made available six months ago (on September 13, 2010.)

No new functional updates were announced for the J2EE version of Quickr either, nor was a product roadmap presented for either Quickr flavor. This heightens my suspicion that Quickr will be rolled into Lotus Connections in the next year or two. I believe IBM would do so sooner, but cannot because too many of it’s current Quickr customers have not yet purchased or deployed Connections.

LotusLive

IBM’s cloud-based collaboration service, LotusLive, gained new functionality in 2010, including iNotes email, the Communities module from Lotus Connections, and integrated third-party applications from Skype, UPS, Tungle, Silanis, and Bricsys. The LotusLive team also created new functional bundles as distinctly-priced offerings.

There were several new announcements regarding LotusLive made at Lotusphere 2011. IBM will be delivering its Symphony suite of office productivity tools as a service in LotusLive. This will enable users to collaboratively create, read, and edit word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation documents across organizational firewalls. Symphony is currently available as a Tech Preview inside of LotusLive Labs and will be made generally available later this year.

There were also several partnerships with third-party vendors announced at Lotusphere that will enable LotusLive users to execute important business processes in the cloud. The most prominent is a partnership with SugarCRM, which will make its sales tracking functionality available via LotusLive by Q2 of this year. A similar partnership with Ariba will allow LotusLive customers to procure and sell goods to other businesses. Finally, a partnership with Expresso immediately enables users to edit both Symphony and Microsoft Office documents within LotusLive, rather than the file’s native application.

The LotusLive team has executed well, delivering functionality promised at Lotusphere 2010. However, adoption of the offering has not reached the scale that IBM had anticipated it would by now. Listening to LotusLive customers speak on two different occasions revealed that smaller enterprises are using the offering to run mission-critical parts of their businesses, while larger enterprises are very cautiously  experimenting at the moment, if they are embracing the offering at all. 2011 will be a make-or-break year for LotusLive in terms of customer adoption.

Conclusion

I left Lotusphere 2011 with mixed feelings. The IBM Corporation has embraced social business, but is still hedging its bet. The Lotus division has executed well on previously announced strategy in the last year, but the impact of its more integrated offerings will be minimal unless other IBM divisions – Global Business Services in particular – step up to help customers become more collaborative, social businesses. The functional build-out of most of the individual Lotus products has continued at a good pace, but the development paths of some those offerings are less than clear to customers.

2011 could be a watershed year in IBM’s century-long history. However, we may ultimately look back and say that it was a year of missed opportunity. The outcome will depend on IBM’s success or failure in becoming a social business itself and aligning its resources to help customers transform as well.

LinkedIn Signal Demonstrates The Power of Role-Based Activity Stream Filters

LinkedIn today announced Signal, a new feature (currently in beta) that lets members see an activity stream that combines LinkedIn status updates and Twitter posts from other members who have opted-in to the feature. LinkedIn has licensed the Twitter firehose to incorporate all of its members’ tweets into the site, not just tweets with the #in hashtag embedded, as is current practice.

While it is hard to imagine anyone other than corporate and independent talent recruiters will make LinkedIn their primary Twitter client, Signal does have an element that is worthy of emulation by other social networks and enterprise social software providers that incorporate an activity stream (and which of those does not these days!) That feature is role-specific filters.

I wrote previously in this post about the importance of providing filters with which individuals can narrow their activity stream. I also noted that the key is to understand which filters are needed by which roles in an organization. LinkedIn apparently gets this, judging by the screenshot pictured below.

LinkedIn Signal screenshot courtesty of TechCrunch

Notice the left-hand column, labeled “Filter by”. LinkedIn has most likely researched a sample of its members to determine which filters would be most useful to them. Given that recruiters are the most frequent users of LinkedIn, the set of filters displayed in the screenshot makes sense. They allow recruiters to see tweets and LinkedIn status updates pertaining to LinkedIn members in specific industries, companies, and geographic regions. Additionally, the Signal stream can be filtered by strength of connection in the LinkedIn network and by post date.

The activity stream of every enterprise social software suite (ESS) should offer such role-based filters, instead of the generic ones they currently employ. Typical ESS filtering parameters include individuals, groups or communities, and workspaces. Some vendors offer the ability to filter by status as a collaborator on an object, such as a specific document or sales opportunity. A few ESS providers allow individuals to create custom filters for their activity stream. While all of these filters are helpful, they do not go far enough in helping individuals narrow the activity stream to view updates needed in a specific work context.

The next logical step will be to create standard sets of role-based filters that can be further customized by the individuals using them. Just as LinkedIn has created a filter set that is useful to recruiters, ESS providers and deploying organizations must work together to create valuable filter sets for employees performing specific jobs and tasks. Doing so will result in increased productivity from, and effectiveness of, any organization’s greatest asset – it’s people.

Enterprise Social Software and Portals: A Brief Comparison of Deployment Patterns

In my last post, I examined whether or not Enterprise Social Software (ESS) is the functional equivalent of enterprise portal applications as they existed ten years ago. My conclusion was:

From a functional perspective, ESS is quite similar to enterprise portal software in the way that it presents information, but that does not tell the whole story. ESS lacks critical personalization capabilities, but provides better collaboration, process, publication and distribution, categorization, and integration functionality than portals. In my judgment, ESS is somewhat similar to portal software, but mainly in appearance. It makes more functionality available than portals did, but needs to add a key missing piece – personalization.

In this post, I will focus on the observation that ESS resembles enterprise portals in another regard – how and why it is deployed.

Enterprise v. Smaller Deployments

Portals were initially marketed as a tool for enterprise-wide communication and interaction, with each internal or external user role having its own personalized set of resources available in the user interface. While there were some early enterprise-wide deployments, portal software was deployed far more often at the functional level to support specific business processes (e.g. sales, procurement, and research portals) or at the departmental level to support operations.

Enterprise social software has also been touted as most valuable when deployed across an organization. However, like portal software, ESS has most often been deployed at the functional level in support of activities such as marketing, customer service, and competitive intelligence. As a result, the promised network effects of enterprise-wide deployments have not been realized to-date, just as they were not with most portal deployments.

Internal- v. External-Facing Deployments

Most early portal deployments were internally-focused, as shown in this InformationWeek summary of market research conducted in 2001. Not only was there a smaller number of externally-focused deployments, mixed-audience deployments did not begin to appear until the portal market was extremely mature. ESS deployments have followed this same pattern, and we are just now seeing early efforts to blend inward- and outward-facing business activity in common ESS environments.

Internal Use Cases

Portal software was often deployed in response to a specific business need. Among the most common were:

  • intranet replacement/updgrade
  • self-service HR
  • application aggregation
  • document/content management
  • expertise location
  • knowledge sharing
  • executive dashboards

ESS has been deployed for many of the same reasons, especially intranet replacement, application aggregation, expertise location, and knowledge sharing.

External Use Cases

Portal software was deployed externally to provide self-service access to corporate information. In some cases, access to selected application functionality was also provided to key business partners. Retail and B2B portals enabled customers to purchase goods and services online. Process acceleration, revenue growth, and cost reduction were the key business drivers behind nearly all external portal uses.

ESS doesn’t seem to have the same goals. I have seen some, but little, evidence that external communities are being leveraged to accelerate business processes or reduce costs. Peer support communities are a good example of cost reduction via ESS. The goal of most outward-facing ESS deployments seems to be customer engagement that translates (eventually) into increased innovation and revenue for the deploying organization.

Conclusions

ESS deployments today strongly resemble portal projects that were undertaken ten years ago. Few, if any, ESS deployments have been enterprise-wide. Instead, ESS is deployed to many of the same department and functional groups, to support the same business processes, and to drive many of the same business results as portals were a decade ago (and still are.)

What does this commonality with early portal deployments mean for ESS? I will examine that in my next post. Until then, I would love to hear your reaction to what I have presented here.

Enterprise Social Software: The Second Coming of Enterprise Portals?

Enterprise Social Software (ESS), at first glance, is eerily similar to the portal software that was the hot enterprise toolset 10 years ago. That became very clear to me during the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston last month, even though I was only able to attend the first 2 (of 4) days of the event.

I have noticed and commented on the parallels between the portal software market as it existed a decade ago and today’s enterprise social software category in a previous post. However, the notion of their similarity was reignited by a comment that I overheard as I walked through the exposition space at this year’s E2.0 Conference. One individual said to his companion something to the effect that if the branding was removed from each vendor’s ESS demo, one would be hard pressed to say which offering came from which specific provider. In other words, there was very little differentiation of user interface (UI) layout or functionality. In fact, every screenshot and live demo that I saw looked like a portal, in that the UI was a collection of data and unstructured information aggregated into a single interface and presented through a number of widgets.

Similarities in Functionality

In 1999, Delphi Group published a portal architecture diagram, which depicted the layers of functionality that the firm thought were required of a robust enterprise portal solution.

Examining each layer of the portal architecture model and commenting on its applicability to ESS as it exists today will allow us to determine whether ESS really is just another incarnation of portals or if there is something significantly different being offered.

Presentation: In portals, data, unstructured content, and application functionality were  aggregated from multiple sources and presented in widgets, whose layout on the screen was usually customizable by individual users. ESS strongly mimics this UI design, including, in some cases, the ability to customize which widgets are displayed. Most ESS providers are beginning to offer application stores stocked with widgets that can be run in their offerings, exactly like portal software vendors rolled out portlet libraries for their users a decade ago. Finally, portal access on mobile devices was big deal 10 years ago, as is mobile access to ESS functionality today. So portals and ESS certainly appear to be the same.

Personalization: The primary value-add of portal software, in addition to it aggregation capabilities, was its ability to personalize (and, thus, filter) information based on a user’s unique digital identity and organizational role. ESS needs to improve vastly in this area; currently, most information must be manually filtered. This typically occurs via selection of one or more parameters ( to narrow the organization’s activity stream) or by following an individual, group, space, or tag. ESS should apply more profile information and use heuristics to dynamically effect what information is applied on an individuals dashboard or home page.

Collaboration: Some portal deployments embedded collaboration workspaces or their individual elements (IM or chat, discussion forums, polls) into the UI, but, in general, most deployed portals fell short as full-fledged collaboration tools. ESS is a definite improvement here. The array of available collaboration tools is richer and they are more usable, which results in higher adoption.

Process: There was a lot of ink spilled about process portals, but the promise was never fully realized, although there were some exemplary deployments. Process portals had workflow (BPM) either embedded directly into the portal technology or available though an integration with a stand-alone process engine. Similarly, there has been much talk about the need to process enable ESS. The good news is that we might actually execute on the vision this time around. We are beginning to see process-related notifications generated by applications integrated with ESS appear in activity streams. The next step will be to add lightweight activity and information coordination functionality (not full-blown, rules-based BPM) to ESS.

Publishing & Distribution: Portals were (and are) used to publish links to documents, syndicated content, and web clippings. ESS is also used heavily to publish and distribute content and goes well beyond what was possible in portals 10 years ago by adding additional content sources such as status messages, shared bookmarks, blogs, and wikis.

Search: Despite the push nature of information flow in portals, the ability for individuals to find and pull information was also very important for portal users. Search is equally important in ESS and, generally speaking, has under-performed, as it did in portal implementations. So, unfortunately, the similarity in this aspect between portals and ESS is negative in effect.

Categorization: Taxonomies were widely used in portals deployments to aid information personalization. They are still important in ESS, but their new relative, Tagging, is equally valuable in its ability to aid information personalization, browsing, and recall. We now have more tools at our disposal to apply to the information overload challenge than we did 10 years ago.

Integration: Integration of other enterprise applications and content sources was key to realizing the value that portals offered through their ability to aggregate information into a single interface. Portal integration was accomplished using a combination of hard-coded connectors, XML, and JSR-168/WSRP standards. The ESS value proposition also seems to be closely tied to the integration and aggregation model. However, ESS makes better use of defacto integration standards, including REST, RSS, and OpenSocial.

Conclusions

From a functional perspective, ESS is quite similar to enterprise portal software in the way that it presents information, but that does not tell the whole story. ESS lacks critical personalization capabilities, but provides better collaboration, process, publication and distribution, categorization, and integration functionality than portals. In my judgement, ESS is somewhat similar to portal software, but mainly in appearance. It makes more functionality available than portals did, but needs to add a key missing piece – personalization.

Are there similarities in deployment patterns between ESS and portal software as it existed 10 years ago? If so, what do the functional and deployment affinities between the two software categories mean for the evolution of the ESS market? I will attempt to answer those questions in my next post. Until then, I would would appreciate any comments or questions you have on my analysis of their overall functional likeness and differences.

Have Software Suppliers Become Too Customer-Focused?

Remember the old dictum that says “the customer is always right”? Guess what, they aren’t.

Many times during my career as a management consultant, I have heard clients articulate their business needs and wants in the form of technical solution requirements. Besides completely ignoring the important intermediary step of stating those needs and wants as business requirements, the technical requirements voiced too often reflect only what the client knows to be possible; they do not imagine new and alternative technical solutions to business challenges. In other words, customers are not always a great source for innovative ideas on software functionality, much less on entirely new products.

I mention this because, lately, I have been hearing so many software vendors saying how focused they are on use cases and requirements voiced by their customers. Platform module and individual application development seems to be highly driven by customer feedback these days. Perhaps too highly.

Please do not misunderstand; software suppliers should consult frequently with customers, absorb their feedback, and develop against their use cases and requirements. However, vendors must also proactively imagine and build new functionality that will help customers overcome real and critical business challenges in ways that that they did not realize were possible.

A few software suppliers are mindful of this need. I recently saw a position opening announcement for a Senior Product Manager at a software provider that listed the following as one of the key qualifications for a successful candidate:

A demonstrated ability to get past what customers say they want and deliver what they really need

WOW! How powerful is that? It would be difficult to say it in a more simple, clear fashion.

The point of this post is to encourage software providers to think beyond stated customer technical requirements. Those are an important part of product planning, but cannot be the sole basis on which current product development and long-term roadmap decisions are made. Think and act like a management consultant; help your customers envision previously unimagined possibilities. That is a sustainable source of product innovation and competitive advantage.

More on Microblogging: Evolution of the Enterprise Market

Following my post last week on the need for additional filters in enterprise microblogging tools and activity streams, I participated in an interesting Twitter conversation on the subject of microblogging and complexity. The spontaneous conversation began when Greg Lowe, a well-respected Enterprise 2.0 evangelist at Alcatel-Lucent, asked:

“Can stand alone micro-blogging solutions survive when platform plays introduce the feature?”

I immediately replied:

“Yes, if they innovate faster”

Greg shot back:

“is microblogging autonomy about innovation, or simple elegance? More features usually leads to lower usability?”

And, later, he asked a complementary question:

“is there a risk of Microblogging becoming “too complicated”?”

Is Greg on to something here? Do more features usually lead to lower usability? Will functional innovation be the downfall of stand-alone microblogging solutions, or will it help them stay ahead of platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging into their offerings?

One of the commonly heard complaints about software in general, and enterprise software in particular, is that it is too complicated. There are too many features and functions, and how to make use of them is not intuitive. On the other hand, usability is a hallmark of Web 2.0 software, and, if we make it too complex, it is likely that some people will abandon it in favor of simpler tools, whatever those may be.

But that dichotomy does not tell the entire story. Based on anecdotal evidence (there is no published quantitative research available), early adopters of Web 2.0 software in the enterprise appear to value simplicity in software they use. However, as a colleague, Thomas Vander Wal, pointed out to me yesterday, that may not be true for later, mainstream adopters. Ease-of-use may be desirable in microblogging (or any other) software, but having adequate features to enable effective, efficient usage is also necessary to achieve significant adoption. Later adopters need to see that a tool can help them in a significant way before they will begin to use it; marginal utility does not sway them, even if the tool is highly usable.

Simple may not be sustainable. As I wrote last week in this post, as enterprise use of microblogging and activity streams has increased and matured, so has the need for filters. Individuals, workgroups, and communities want to direct micro-messages to specific recipients, and they need to filter their activity streams to increase their ability to make sense out of the raging river of incoming information. Those needs will only increase as more workers microblog and more information sources are integrated into activity streams.

In the public microblogging sphere, Twitter provides a solid example of the need to add functionality to a simple service as adoption grows in terms of registered users and use cases. As more individuals used Twitter, in ways that were never envisioned by its creators, the service responded by adding functionality such as search, re-tweeting, and lists. Each of these features added some degree of complexity to the service, but also improved its usability and value.

In the evolution of any software, there is a trade-off between simplicity and functionality that must be carefully managed. How does one do that? One way is to continuously solicit and accept user feedback. That allows the software provider and organizations deploying it to sense when they are nearing the point where functionality begins to overwhelm ease of use in a harmful manner. Another technique is to roll out new features in small doses at reasonable intervals. Some even advocate slipping new features in unannounced and letting users discover them for themselves. Hosted deployment of software (whether on-premise or off-site) makes this easier to do, since new features are automatically switched on for people using the software.

So back to the original question; can stand-alone microblogging solutions fend off the collaboration suite and platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging and activity streams in their offerings? My definitive answer is “yes”, because there is still room for functionality to be added to microblogging before it becomes over-complicated.

Based on the historical evolution of other software types and categories, it is likely that the smaller vendors, who are  intensely focused on microblogging, will be the innovators, rather than the platform players. As long as vendors of stand-alone microblogging offerings continue to innovate quickly without confusing their customers, they will thrive. That said, a platform vendor could drive microblogging feature innovation if they so desired; think about what IBM has done with its Sametime instant messaging platform. However, I see no evidence of that happening in the microblogging sphere at this time.

The most plausible scenario is that at some point, small, focused vendors driving microblogging innovation (e.g. Socialcast, Yammer) will be acquired by larger vendors, who will integrate the acquired features into their collaboration suite or platform. My sense is that we are still 2-3 years away from that happening, because there is still room for value-producing innovation in microblogging.

What do you think?