Observations from where technology meets business

apophenia: Sociality Is Learning

Another timely blog post from Danah Boyd. As a parent of two teenage girls (and as a former teenager myself) I can relate to the challenges of learning social skills and having to “navigate these muddy waters” of middle school. Today’s parents need to recognize the important role online social networks can play in their teenagers’ lives. Sure, to many parents, sites like Facebook can seem like they are a waste of time. But to your teenager, what happens there can be critically important.

Social skills are the bread and butter of professional life. So how do we learn them?

It's easy to point to middle school as ground zero of youth drama. The rise of status hierarchies combined with budding sexuality throws all sorts of relationships upside down. Bullying, social categories, and popularity are all there. But the key to "surviving" middle school is learning how to navigate these muddy waters with an intact self-esteem. It's not that jealousy and other social dramas disappear after middle school; it's that they get much more nuanced as people's skills improve. But for people to improve their skills, they must learn how to manage unpredictable and uncomfortable social situations. These aren't skills learned in abstract; they're learned through practice.

Rather than demonizing social media or dismissing its educational value, I believe that we need to embrace the environments that youth are using to gather and help them learn to navigate the murky waters of sociality. We cannot "fix" their social worlds, but we can provide the scaffolding that they need to help learn to make sense of sticky social situations. We can serve as listeners, guides, and cheerleaders. We can be there when they're trying to make a decision about a best way to handle a situation and play devil's advocate when they need to work through complicated dynamics. But to be there for youth, we have to treat them with respect and value what they're learning. We have to value the importance of learning about sociality. And we need to be able to listen as confidants, not judges.

We can continue to demonize social spaces, dismiss hanging out, and overly regulate our kids. But I believe this does them a disservice. Being a successful adult in society requires social skills. And we desperately need to give youth space to learn them. They're committed to learning; why aren't we supporting them in doing so?

apophenia: Sociality Is Learning

Initial Impressions of SharePoint 2010

The SharePoint Conference 2009 was packed full of information about Microsoft’s upcoming 2010 release of SharePoint. This is a summary of my initial impressions of the product, which are centered on three major categories:

  • SharePoint 2010 is mostly about improving the platform
  • Microsoft's New Identity Crisis
  • Innovative Platform Features

SharePoint 2010 is mostly about improving the platform:  Microsoft is clearly focused on building out the platform capabilities of SharePoint with the 2010 release. This was initially made obvious by Steve Ballmer during the Q&A session after his keynote when he said that Microsoft views SharePoint as “kind of” operating system. This was made even clearer the following day in a discussion between Microsoft executives and analysts, when the execs shared their three priorities in SharePoint 2010:

  1. Investment in SharePoint Online
  2. Better support for Internet-facing scenarios
  3. “Platform work”

These priorities support comments made by several speakers who said many of improvements and new features in 2010 were the result of significant work "under the hood." The primary benefactors of this work will initially be SharePoint Online. However, enterprise IT departments supporting SharePoint installations should also benefit.

Microsoft's New Identity Crisis: While it is now clear that SharePoint is a platform, a new identity crisis is emerging around SharePoint. With the launch of SharePoint Online, Microsoft no longer just sells SharePoint as a piece of software, they also deliver it as a service. The question is: which of the two has the higher priority? Based on the tone of the conference this week it is clear that on-premises software is still top dog, but will Microsoft customers allow that to continue being the case?

As Mike Gotta pointed out in this blog post, Microsoft seems to be in denial about this. By keeping releases aligned around the notion of on-premises software (by even calling it “SharePoint 2010” Microsoft is saying that software comes first) and their long release cycles, the SaaS offering will be held back. Time will tell if this approach is sustainable.

Noticeably absent from the conference was any demonstration of the “Software + Services” concept promoted by Microsoft. While the tight integration between the Office applications and SharePoint could be called a “Software + Service” approach, I was hoping to see how on-premises deployments of SharePoint could be easily extended with SaaS-delivered features from SharePoint Online. This could be similar to how content filtering capabilities in the high-end version of Exchange is delivered by a Microsoft online service. Approaches like this could be a way to answer critics arguing that Microsoft’s product release cycles are too long.

Innovative Platform Features:  Here are a few of the new or changed features I found noteworthy:

Business Connectivity Services (BCS): The BCS is the follow-on to the Business Data Catalog that was introduced in SharePoint 2007, except that the BCS is now completely baked into SharePoint and Office. The BCS is an architectural framework which enables data to be pulled from external systems (e.g., databases, Line of Business applications) within the context of SharePoint (as a new object called an external list) or Office (surfaced in Outlook, Word, InfoPath, and Access).

The BCS can be used pervasively throughout SharePoint and Office 2010. The examples given in the introductory BCS session started with a database containing names and addresses. A SharePoint example used the BCS to represent this data as an external list. Standard SharePoint list management features could then be applied (e.g., sorting, filtering) and could also be programmatically manipulated like any other list. The second example pulled the same data into Outlook 2010 and was fully managed (including writing back to the external database) as these records were natively stored Outlook contacts. To show how Word 2010’s could leverage the BCS, the same database was used as a data source for custom fields in a form letter. The BCS is also used by SharePoint search (both the standard search and FAST search) for content ingestion.

Unfortunately, the BCS may still be a feature that is well before its time. As infrastructure plumbing the BCS is extremely cool. However, there needs to be applications that use this capability in innovative ways that are relevant to businesses before it can garner the attention it deserves. In my opinion, applications built using the search capabilities in SharePoint may be the most valuable candidates.

Longer term, should the BCS catch on, it may help drive IT organizations to focus more on improving the state of data management within their enterprises, since their data can now be more widely leveraged in everyday work scenarios.

SharePoint Search: SharePoint 2010 seems to have taken several steps beyond the traditional search box without requiring the development of a full blown search application. This middle ground could provide some compelling information discovery opportunities for enterprises looking to leverage both their unstructured and structured data. The quick turnaround in integrating FAST search into SharePoint is probably a testament to the architectural changes in the design of 2010. As was noted in the FAST search overview, it was only 18 months ago that Microsoft acquired FAST.

However, confusion between SharePoint’s standard search and the FAST Search for SharePoint will remain. I expect Microsoft will have to a better job distinguishing the two types of search available in SharePoint in the future.

The re-engineered relationship between SharePoint and the Office applications (e.g., Word, Excel): While the previous integrations between SharePoint and the Office desktop applications were convenient ways to open files and publish calendars, in my experience they are rarely (if ever) used by most people. With 2010, SharePoint and Office cooperate more intimately throughout the entire time the desktop application is being use, not just simply communicating when a file is opened or saved.

First, Microsoft is introducing a new protocol, called MS-FSSHTTP, which stands for “File Synchronization via SOAP over HTTP Protocol Specification.” This allows for Office applications to intelligently synchronize file changes with SharePoint. Today, if you were to open a 50MB PowerPoint file stored on SharePoint the browser starts up the PowerPoint application and then PowerPoint transfers the file from SharePoint. So far so good. However, every time the user wants to save the file the entire 50MB is transferred back to SharePoint. This is simply how the WebDAV protocol works and is a major inhibitor to working with files stored in SharePoint.

The use of MS-FSSHTTP enables SharePoint and PowerPoint 2010 to only transmit the changes made to the file, not the entire file. For example, if we were to correct the spelling of some text in our 50MB PowerPoint file, only this change would be transmitted (a matter of a few bytes). This is a huge improvement and will make editing files stored in SharePoint just as responsive (in most cases) as files stored locally. In my opinion, teams collaborating on documents should store them in workspaces, rather than simply use the workspace to periodically share a copy of “the latest version.” By keeping the master copy of a file in the workspace, it becomes the latest copy. This new protocol will make these scenarios easier to support. The MS-FSSHTTP protocol is also used to provide the co-authoring features in the new Office 2010 desktop applications as well as synchronization of changes for OneNote and SharePoint Workspace (to support offline documents).

In addition, SharePoint 2010 is extending Office 2010 applications with document management capabilities. These include:

  • Office applications can align document properties with SharePoint metadata columns. A form of this was available in SharePoint/Office 2007 but is beefed up even more with the new taxonomy and tagging changes coming in 2010.
  • Templates for new documents (when selecting File/New) can be retrieved from SharePoint content types.
  • Image files can be easily retrieved from SharePoint.

There may be other integrations between SharePoint and Office that I missed. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two is much cozier in 2010.

Monday At The SharePoint Conference

What I learned today at the SharePoint Conference:

  • What is SharePoint? Even Microsoft cannot define what SharePoint is. Ballmer said he is asked this by customers “all the time.”
  • SharePoint is a platform. However, during the Q&A Ballmer said, in answering a question regarding SharePoint Designer 2010 supporting SharePoint 2007, that this is a classic dilemma regarding “operating systems.” In addition, he said that Microsoft views SharePoint as “kind of” operating system (“platform” was used extensively this morning)
  • SharePoint will always favor Windows technologies. In the Q&A (again, best place for unscripted remarks), Ballmer made it clear that SharePoint will always support Windows technologies better. The questioner said he was using SharePoint with teachers, who love their Macs. In my opinion, perhaps the only major politically incorrect moment of the morning keynotes.
  • FAST search. This is the branding for the high-end search SharePoint will provide in it’s Enterprise Edition. This isn’t just search, its FAST search. This seems clear as mud to me. However, I cannot think of a better alternative.
  • Doesn’t Microsoft sell Visio and PowerPoint? At two "Overviews" today (Search, ECM), neither Microsoft speaker had a diagram explaining high-level concepts, instead each used screenshots of SharePoint administrator tools. I suspect the non-developers in the audience (“the masses” as in “ECM for the Masses” the title of one of the overview) were lost at this point.
  • We’re all developers, right? The Microsoft speakers seem to assume we are all developers. In fact, the first demo during the keynote this morning was the most technical one.

Tomorrow’s topics:

  • Business Connectivity Services. This may be the most innovative “new” capability in 2010. It is the evolution of the Business Data Catalog in (BDC) 2007 but appears to be more fully baked into SharePoint and can be used in many places.
  • FAST Search deep dive. I am interested in learning more about the processing FAST does as it is ingesting content.
  • Coexistence of SharePoint with file shares. SharePoint appears to be having more success replacing file shares than collaboration or document management solutions that came long before it. This topic is starting to show up in more of our client dialogues.

This Week’s SharePoint Conference

It looks like this will be a busy week. Microsoft execs announced some of the changes coming with the new version of SharePoint in their keynotes this morning (press release below). Here are some things I will be looking for in SharePoint 2010:

  • Ease of use. The current UI is clunky and takes far too many clicks. Adding the Office ribbon UI to SharePoint should go a long way to address this. But, will remnants of the old UI remain?
  • It appears that the MOSS name is gone. The successor to WSS is SharePoint Foundation 2010. Whenever someone from Microsoft said “SharePoint” they never meant WSS. Based on the agenda, SharePoint Foundation isn’t getting much attention either.
  • How much of a threat to the current SaaS WCM market will Microsoft be? From the release below it looks like SharePoint Online is expanding to handle Internet-facing websites. Should CrownPeak or Clickability worry?
  • How thoroughly integrated is the new Business Connectivity Services (BCS)? I’m especially interested in seeing if/how the new FAST-based search capabilities in SharePoint will leverage BCS. However, this has implications across the entire platform.
  • How much of a role will SharePoint play in addressing the “document as a web page” paradigm? The Office web apps are a good start but will they support wiki-style linking and management of large document bases? Or, will documents simply become cloud-based but still standalone?

Ballmer’s keynote address highlighted features and capabilities such as these:

· A new ribbon user interface that makes end users more productive and customization of SharePoint sites easy

· Deep Office integration through social tagging, backstage integration and document life-cycle management

· Built-in support for rich media such as video, audio and Silverlight, making it easy to build dynamic Web sites

· New Web content management features with built-in accessibility through Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, multilingual support and one-click page layout, enabling anyone to access SharePoint Server sites

· New SharePoint tools in Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, giving developers a premier experience with the tools they know and trust

· Business Connectivity Services, which allow developers to connect capabilities to line-of-business data or Web services in SharePoint Server and the Office client

· Rich APIs and support for Silverlight, representational state transfer (REST) and Language-Integrated Query (LINQ), to help developers rapidly build applications on the SharePoint platform

· Enterprise features in SharePoint Online such as Excel Services and InfoPath Forms Services, which make it simple to use, share, secure and manage interactive forms across an organization

· The addition of two new SharePoint SKUs for Internet-facing sites, including an on-premises and hosted offer

Microsoft Unveils SharePoint Server 2010 and Showcases New Functionality

Training to Climb an Everest of Digital Data

It’s not just technology companies and the federal government that have these challenges. Every mid/large enterprise is drowning in data. Unfortunately, the approach most often taken by IT organizations is to view data as a liability and delete it as soon as possible. This is the case even though much of the data is proprietary, meaning it is data competitors don’t have. Some of the search-based technologies I am writing about this quarter can be used to address this problem. But more research is still needed.

It is a rare criticism of elite American university students that they do not think big enough. But that is exactly the complaint from some of the largest technology companies and the federal government.

It was not long ago that the notion of one company having anything close to 40 billion photos would have seemed tough to fathom. Google, meanwhile, churns through 20 times that amount of information every single day just running data analysis jobs. In short order, DNA sequencing systems too will generate many petabytes of information a year.

NY Times: Training to Climb an Everest of Digital Data

Global Growth of Broadband

Here's an interesting visualization from the BBC. Click on the map below to see how the world has adopted broadband Internet connectivity. Look for a slider along the bottom of the map.

Click on this map to see the visualization

Via Matthew Hurst

Best Global Brands Over the Past Ten Years

Here’s an interesting visualization of brand surveys taken over the past ten years. Click on the diagram below to open the interactive visualization. Be sure to mouse over the list of companies on both sides of the diagram:

Click here to see the visualization

A Decade of Best Global Brands

Via Paul Kedrosky

Collaborative Online Lists

Everyone uses lists. Some of us are more serious about using lists but we all use them. We use them for keeping track of tasks we need to do, shopping for groceries, maintaining contact information, and in hundreds of other ways. We also use lists when we work with others (for example, on a project team or with colleagues in our workgroup). Lists are important for keeping track of the work we are doing together, for sharing information, and so forth. Collaborative online lists are simply lists that are easily accessible and can be maintained by multiple people.

Perhaps the most popular list-editor is Microsoft Excel. Of course, this use of Excel does not exercise any spreadsheet calculation feature. Excel simply makes editing lists easy. A quick browse through Microsoft’s online Excel template catalog reveals a number of list-only templates.

However, the problem with using Excel to manage a list, such as project team’s issue list, is that it is stored in a file and files can be black holes of information (recall that I hate files). Files tend to be treated as personal items and not easily shared. A project’s administrator may keep a list of issues and send it out just before a weekly meeting but that is about as much sharing as we see when lists are kept in files. Need to find out about a particular issue before the next meeting? Well then call the project administrator on the telephone.

Collaborative online lists avoid this problem by being stored online so they are easily accessible and the responsibility for updating them can be shared. The good news is you may already have the most popular online collaborative list solutions running within your intranet. Lists can be found in collaborative workspace products such as EMC/Documentum eRoom (where lists are called databases), Lotus Quickr, or Microsoft SharePoint.

If done correctly, collaborative online lists can support both emergent and hierarchical uses. For example, I know of a large company that was going through a significant downsizing. They were running SharePoint on their intranet and someone created a list to capture information about people leaving the company. It started filling with names and became quite popular. That is, until HR shut it down (I suppose there are other lessons to learn here). Nevertheless, this is a good example of an emergent online list.

Collaborative online lists can also support hierarchical use cases. For example, large development efforts often consist of many teams within a hierarchical reporting structure. Imagine having a workspace for each team and each one maintaining a list of issues in a common format. These lists could then be rolled up and consolidated to provide managers with a broad overview of all issues (yes, culturally, this may be challenging). eRoom provides a similar function with their “Enterprise Database” function.

If list items have unique URLs they are easier to reuse. For example, you could use social bookmarking systems to bookmark and tag an issue (or any type of list item) and associate them with other related web pages or sites on the intranet. This way an issue within a list can become part of a larger enterprise knowledgebase.

Collaborative online lists are a lot like wikis. I view wikis as replacing Word files and collaborative online lists as replacing lists kept in Excel files. In both cases, information is easier to access and uniquely addressable (and, hence, easier to share and recall).

However, there are a few things collaborative workspaces can learn from wikis, the biggest of which is security. Often times the default security of a collaborative workspace limits access to no one, except those specifically invited to the workspace. Wikis tend to be open from the start. However, wikis marketed to enterprises can also be tied down, just like the traditional collaborative workspace. So, this isn’t necessarily a technology problem.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog

Thoughts on technophilia

In reading this post from Danah Boyd I can’t help but think about how much of what she says can be applied to the challenges of information technology adoption in large enterprises, particular those tools associated with collaboration and personal productivity. All too often, as technologists (geeks) at heart, we prefer to only deal with these challenges as tool issues. But the really hard part (and the effort that can make the biggest difference) is understanding what people do in their daily work-life and finding ways for technology to help them be more effective.

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

apophenia: some thoughts on technophilia

Is Bluenog’s Use of Open Source Sustainable?

There have been some recent interesting posts discussing Bluenog, a company which sells the Bluenog ICE (integrated collaborative environment). This is a product consisting of a portal framework, content management system, a report generator, a wiki, and a calendar all working within a secured environment using a granular permission model and is capable of integrating with enterprise single sign-on systems. The system looks to be very Enterprise 2.0-ish and may provide a useful intranet environment that brings together the breadth of information needed by knowledge workers. I had a chance to look at the product at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference and talk with the company in an extended briefing. The product should get the attention of many IT managers.

While the Bluenog ICE product itself looks interesting, it is the business model the company uses to develop it that is causing a controversy and, in my opinion, raises some flags. Bluenog advertises itself as an open source company (or, rather, that is what most people walk away thinking when they have seen or read about the company). To be precise, here is what Bluenog says about their use of open source:

Bluenog ICE leverages several open source CMS, open source collaboration, open source portal and open source BI projects. These projects provide the building blocks for Bluenog ICE and allow us to provide tightly integrated solutions at a fraction of the cost of traditional alternatives.

The web page linked above lists a total of 19 open source projects as being used within the Bluenog product so, clearly, Bluenog is a consumer open source software. However, although the distinction may be subtle, the way Bluenog uses open source is different than what most enterprise IT managers may be expecting.

First, let’s be clear, Bluenog sells a proprietary product. Bluenog does not make the resulting source code of their commercial product available via an open source license. Paying customers get a copy of the source code but this offers none of the benefits, such as transparency and choice, that enterprises can gain from leveraging open source. What can you do with a copy of the source code? Open source becomes powerful when it is out in a community, gaining new features, getting security flaws fixed, etc.

Second, the only company that has benefited from Bluenog’s approach to open source is Bluenog itself, not its customers. But the sustainability of that benefit is questionable. Let me explain.

A number of the open source products used, which provide core ICE features, require significant changes to work in the Bluenog framework and these changes are not contributed to any sort of open source community. In essence, major parts of Bluenog are built from forks of open source products that are folded into their proprietary framework. Any enhancements or security patches from the originating open source community would have to be manually integrated into Bluenog because they are now separate products. For example, Bluenog is built with a version of the Hippo CMS that is one major version behind the main project.

So the question enterprises should be asking is this: Is Bluenog’s development model sustainable? Arguably, other companies have used open source this way. For example, IBM’s Lotus Symphony is based off an old version of Open Office. However, Bluenog is different for two reasons. First, Bluenog isn’t IBM. They are a startup and have limited resources. Second, they are creating a whole new integrated product based off of the amalgamation of several open source products, which sounds like a big integration challenge. IBM is re-basing the next release of Lotus Symphony on Open Office 3. Can Bluenog say the same about Hippo CMS? Do they care about future versions of Hippo CMS or are they content with keeping the older code, essentially turning these pieces into their own proprietary code?

If I were an enterprise IT manager considering Bluenog I wouldn’t let their use of open source sway me at all and evaluate them as a proprietary software vendor. I would also start asking questions about how they plan on sustaining the development of the product. Bluenog’s approach to using open source may have helped initially to get the first product out the door faster. However, the enterprise software market is a marathon not a sprint.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog

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