Written by Guest Blogger John Milan and edited by Richard MacManus. John is Senior Software Architect and founder of TeamDirection, one of the companies mentioned in this post.
What amount of time is the right amount of time for two people to tie the knot? Three months? Two years? One decade? It turns out to be not so much a specific duration but an appropriate duration - long enough to understand each other, but no so long as to get bored.
Does the same hold true for software technologies and philosophies? It took about thirty years for a robust operating system to successfully join with a fetching graphical user interface. It took about forty years for the internet and markup languages to hook up and bear the web browsers we can't live without today.
Thirty years. Forty years. It takes a long time for technologies to understand each other. So how long will it take for social and business applications to embrace each other, much less produce the next generation of applications? It turns out not too much longer, because social and business applications have both been around the block a few times. If you believe that the first personal business applications arrived at the same time as the first personal computer; and if you believe that the first massively social application arrived when Dungeons and Dragons fans began to learn how to program, then social and business apps have been courting each other for well over twenty years now. It's starting to look like commitment time!
Defining Social Business Applications
What exactly is a social application? As Ebrahim Ezzy observed in a recent Read/WriteWeb post, a social application is one that allows groups of people to coordinate certain kinds of interaction. However, he traced its origins back to only the late 1990s. I claim it dates back to the first MUD programs in the early 1980s. An older fellow with a better memory than both of us might claim it was the IBM 360 Mainframe, which brought SABRE to tens of thousands of travel agents and allowed them to coordinate ticketing interactions.
Or would that be an example of a business application? As Microsoft defines it: "business application refers to any application that is important to running your business". For example, the most critical application for most companies today is Email, which helps people coordinate certain kinds of interaction. Could Email be the first social business application?
Yes - and it also happens to be the most successful application of all time. The reason is simple: because it shares aspects of both social and business computing. Email is everywhere. Desktops or webtops, phones or blackberries. And because it has both social and business aspects, it can be used by corporate CEOs or PTA moms or dads - anyone who needs to coordinate group interaction.
That sounds like the definition for social business applications: software that coordinates group interaction that is important to running your business.
People, Data and Identity
There is one more feature critical to social and business applications - and it's the reason why Email can be everywhere. Identity.
If you want to be social or in business, you need an identity. With an identity you can build web pages and blogs. You can sign up for memberships and services. And you can participate in groups, discussions and the marketplace. As technology evolves, you see more features relying on identity - such as presence (for both instant messaging and workspace activity) and authority (such as Richard MacManus being an authority on web technology or Apple being an authority on coolness).
But what about Email messages? Do they have identities? Absolutely. Without an identity, how would the sender and the recipient(s) know and agree that the message on each person's computer is the same? As with any communication, we need assurances that the message we send and the message people receive are equivalent.
Identity is fundamental to any social or business application - not only for the humans involved, but also for the data.
Take a purely social application like match.com. Its value is not only in presenting individuals, but in presenting data about those individuals that everyone can agree on.
Or take a purely business application like salesforce.com. Again, its value is not only in presenting client applications - but in presenting data about those clients that everyone can agree on.
Finally, take an incredibly successful application like iTunes - which works equally well with the identity of the consumer and the identity of the merchandise. iTunes makes acquiring more songs via your credit card very easy. It shows social awareness by listing songs other people also like and manages the songs themselves superbly - both with licensing and by providing a handy carrying case.
The iTunes/iPod experience is an excellent example of the next wave of social and business computing - applying social and business philosophies to both people and data.
Example Social Business Applications
After a few million years of evolution, it's not surprising you have an identity. After a few hundred years of litigation, we have established that corporations also have an identity. It's taken a scant 60 years to understand the implications of giving data identity, but then we're working on internet time these days. And social business applications? They're starting to appear today.
Microsoft Live Meeting
Purchased by Microsoft in January 2003, PlaceWare (now called LiveMeeting) was an excellent example of merging the social possibilities of the internet with the business requirements of the workplace. People could create and join meetings, have a presence visible to other members of the meeting, and share files - or even real-time desktop states - with an entire group.
Groove joins the immediacy of online presence and instant synchronization - with business context like permissions, roles, secure communication and offline capabilities. The origin of Groove can be traced back to Ray watching one of his kids playing online games and seeing how these virtual groups interacted. He drew parallels for how business groups could collaborate on problems (remember those MUDs?). Microsoft acquired Groove in March 2005 and Bill Gates has since transferred his visionary duties to Ray Ozzie.Founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie back in the late 1990s,
Founded in 2002, my company TeamDirection created the Project Management tools for Groove Project Edition. TeamDirection took advantage of the Groove infrastructure to provide a workgroup environment for all participants of a project. This allowed people to schedule, track and report their individual pieces - while TeamDirection kept the entire project synchronized and up to date with a master MS Project. We are extending the business aspects of Project Mangement by integrating with SharePoint web services. Similarly, TeamDirection is also extending the social aspects of Project Management by integrating instant messaging.
Colligo Networks, Inc. was formed in April 2000 to address the collaboration challenges faced by mobile teams. In response to a significant customer problem, Colligo developed technology to enable users of IBM Lotus Notes to replicate their databases directly between laptops - without the need to connect to the Domino server. This was then expanded to enable laptop users on Microsoft Windows to connect directly over ad hoc wireless links to share messages, files, folders and resources. More recently, the company has developed products that enable users to take Microsoft SharePoint team sites offline.
The Future of Social Business Applications
While you might not be able to teach old dogs new tricks, you can certainly teach old applications a thing or two. Even old stalwarts like Email. While Email does a lot to connect people together and coordinate group activities, it would be even better if it incorporated a simple little feature most social applications use - an unread marker.
The Inbox has an unread marker. What if individual Emails could have unread markers too? That would allow users to update their Email messages. Would that break the social contract of everyone looking at equivalent messages? Not if a sender's updates are synchronized with all the recipients copies.
Why would this be a nice feature? The most common problem with Email today is that email fills our inboxes to the point of obfuscation. As the recipient list broadens and the discussion lengthens, it becomes too difficult for humans to organize sequential messages into a coherent structure. The Emails begin to lose their context.
But what if we could keep the discussion in context? People like to use social features (the sender, the message title, the date it was sent, whether I replied or not) to organize their messages. Nobody I know of can recall a message id (e.g. AaLLsd32232o002dad), but we do remember Bob's Email from last week.
If we re-factored Email to include a little social engineering, we could not only cut down on the sheer volume of email in our inboxes - but increase the utility of larger groups participating in a discussion. If it matches the original message id, then the new information can be merged seamlessly. And if it's merged seamlessly, then the context can be preserved and Email can be a productivity tool once again.
Enhancing Web Applications
You may have noticed that each of the above social business applications has a significant presence on the desktop. What might not be so obvious is that each of the above applications also has significant web awareness.
Indeed, the job of social business applications is not to obviate web applications, but instead to enhance them.
Each of the above applications makes tremendous use of web infrastructure to transfer and synchronize data. In the case of TeamDirection and Colligo, they treat the location of data agnostically- either in their environment or in a web (SharePoint) environment. Groove requires the internet for all communication, be it server-based or peer-to-peer. And LiveMeeting could not function without the internet. These apps all focus on synchronizing data to provide a uniform view for their clients. Such a view is only possible with the agreement of identity - be it a person or a bunch of bits.
It is also interesting to note the moves Microsoft has made in the social business application world. Holders of two of the the most lucrative franchises of all time, Windows and Office, Microsoft has been looking for ways to leverage their hegemony and lay the foundation for the next generation. Rich, internet enabled applications - by all outward appearances - seem to figure prominently in Microsoft's plans.
Social business apps are not about raising the profile of desktop applications, or diminishing the role of web applications - but rather enabling the flow of data in such a way as to make its location immaterial. As Email has aptly demonstrated, there is no one correct way to interact with messages. Rather, there is an incorrect way to stifle access of messages.
The task at hand is to expand options for richer types of data: files, meetings, tasks, calendars and much more. When this individual data is synchronizable and accessible anywhere, anytime on anything offline or online - the next revolution of the Web will be at hand.