Home The Marriage of Social and Business Applications

The Marriage of Social and Business Applications

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

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
to tens of thousands of travel agents and allowed them to coordinate ticketing

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

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

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.


Founded by Lotus Notes
creator Ray Ozzie back in the late 1990s, 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


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
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.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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