Entries from May 2008 ↓

The future of point tools in social software?

I started this post more than a week ago and I want to get it out before this week is over otherwise I never will. And my weeks end on Thursdays as I’m lucky enough to be home with my two daughters on Fridays — when “social” software means trying to get them to take turns playing Peep games on the family computer.

But back to topic. I wanted to revisit Vignette’s analyst day from a couple of weeks ago and specifically, a topic that came up on the one of the customer panels. Jon Sallade, Director of Web and Internet Services at Harvard Business School, was one of the panel participants.

My question for Jon was around the use of social software on the HBS sites and how this is evolving. I asked if HBS, which only recently has decided to use Vignette for the HBS Executive Education site (they were about two weeks from launch that day so must be getting close now), has various point tools up and running for blogs and community sites and if so, what is the future for these.

His answers? Yes, and they’re still figuring that out. He noted the importance, for example, of insuring a blog as popular the one by Andrew McAfee, which is part of is purview, work well, be stable, meet the author’s needs, but still function as part of HBS as a whole. He wasn’t sure yet if that would mean supporting a bunch of best-of-breed tools or trying to consolidate on a single platform, most likely with some customizations.

Perhaps more telling, another Vignette customer, Jeff Misenti from Fox News Digital, also noted having a WordPress site up currently and plans to convert this to run as part of the company’s larger Vignette implementation. He noted their desire to simplify their environment and eliminate the number of services that just “stick more javascript tags on our pages.”

It’s too early to say if this will be the predominant trend or if web services will finally make integration of multiple tools easier and eliminate the requirement to mush everything eventually into some kind of platform or “suite.”

But it does seem likely to me that as more WCM and collaboration vendors add social software capabilities to their products, more mainstream adopters (i.e., not early) will be less inclined to bring in additional tools. Unless of course features from the vendors they already work with don’t meet requirements.

Social software at EMC World

Some public disclosure finally about where EMC is headed in social software & collaboration from EMC followers Marko Sillanpaa and Laurence Hart both currently attending this week’s EMC World in Vegas.

EMC Documentum Will Not Go Quietly Into that Dark Night

“Finally a UI that is as clean and simple as Alfresco and SharePoint and a bonus that it’s as sexy as an iPhone.”

EMC World 2008: Introduction to EMC’s Next-Generation Knowledge Worker Client

“The vision: – Web 2.0 Client – Information Intelligence – Anywhere AccessWeb 2.0 Platform”

Let’s not name ‘leaders’ in social software

A bit of fur flew yesterday over this tweet made by Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester about an upcoming Forrester report on white-label social networking providers:

Some vendors are going to be very, very mad at me, the report will indicate who is a leader. Get as mad as you want, clients come first 🙂

Jeremiah clarified.

This comment stuck in my craw too, but not for the reasons others have suggested. Sure we could poke fun at Jeremiah’s choice of phrasing but I don’t think anyone seriously thought that he meant Forrester clients would be ranked more highly in his upcoming report than non-clients.

What bothered me was his use of “leaders” and saying this is going to make vendors “very mad.” My question is, will a vendor be mad if it is not a leader or because leaders are named in the first place? I hope it is the latter.

(An aside, I never like ascribing emotions to companies…a company can be successful, it can be well managed, it can be innovative – can it be mad??)

For one thing, it’s too early in the social software game to crown any sort of leader. Sure markets have leaders. There is a leading car manufacturer, based on number of units sold. Or we can calculate PC shipments or email seats or something similar to tag a leader based on market share. But we can’t do that now in social software and we may never be able to as many of the capabilities we’re now analyzing may well become features in apps that address specific business goals.

And business goals is another way of talking about use cases. Right now the use cases are too varied even if we’re only looking at social networking. What is the business goal of the community? Is it to reduce product support calls? Generate page views / ad revenue? Build brand loyalty? Capture customer ideas for product innovation? Connect far-flung employees / partners? One of other myriad objectives?

The answer to this and other similar questions (what kind of content is needed, how much privacy is required, is there a requirement to link to public networks or internal systems, etc., etc.) will help customers decide what kind of capabilities they need, what architecture is required, what the necessary integration points are and ultimately, which vendor might be the best fit for them.

And speaking of them, who are they? That certainly has an impact on who the leading vendor would be for that customer in that use case. These are all relevant questions even if we were in a position to identify market-share based leaders.

To quote Alan Pelz-Sharpe over at CMS Watch talking about vendor selection more generally:

most of the time it is not a case of bad technology versus good technology. Rather it a case of good fit versus bad fit: a product could become an outstanding performer in a larger legal firm may make a terrible fit in a mid-size manufacturing and ERP-centric environment.

I’ve been an analyst off and on for a decade (I started off at Giga Information Group, which ultimately became part of Forrester and there are many at Forrester I still count as friends so I bear no ill will to Jeremiah or Forrester, just for the record). I’ve also worked in product management and product marketing on the vendor side and know the frustration and the sometimes like-tolerate-hate relationship vendors have with analysts. Analysts can be too busy, too arrogant and too single-minded to take in the nuances of a particular vendor’s strategy, customer successes or technology.

Of course I haven’t seen Jeremiah’s research proposal and his report may well address all of my concerns. If so, all the better, though I would advise more caution with comments of this nature, the character limitations of Twitter notwithstanding. It doesn’t help the sometimes skeptical nature of the vendor-analyst relationship I already described.

Obviously I think analyst firms provide valuable services or I wouldn’t work for one. IT buyers look to analyst firms to help them gain some clarity in a market that is often difficult to parse due to confusing marketing tactics that make different products sound similar and similar products sound nothing alike. Chunking this up into some categorical buckets can be very useful to busy IT execs trying get started down the road to choosing an appropriate technology.

But crowning winners, particularly in such an early-stage market, can unnecessarily limit a buyer’s selection pool while simultaneously putting vendors in a position to warp their marketing or worse yet products to score well. Reminds me of the ‘teaching to test’ debates we parents have here in Massachusetts about classroom emphasis on MCAS scores. I think we’re smarter than fifth graders and can handle a bit more nuance.

Semantic technology conference

This blog’s title alludes to the well documented problem of people not being able to find things, mainly within an enterprise environment. Semantic technology has the potential to change that. And having just spent a day and a half at the Semantic Technology conference in San Jose (it goes on for another three days), I can verify that there’s plenty of people who think that it’s on the verge of doing so.

The promise of semantic technology, as Jeff Pollock of Oracle put it at the end of his presentation, is that  “finding stuff just got easier.”

I spoke to a lot of people and will be talking to numerous vendors, customers and investors in the coming months, but here’s my initial take:

  • Semantic technology will succeed if it’s led out by the consumer market, followed by the enterprise. This is despite the widespread skepticism about the Semantic Web, you know, the bit about it being an untenable, top-down approach to apply meaning to web pages, which I think is itself misunderstood. There’s a couple of major attempts at bring sem tech to the consumer right now: Powerset, a web search engine that launch this month, initiall searching Wikipedia articles and Twine, a social network based on shared interests built by Radar Networks, which will launch fully in the fall, but is in private beta now. Should either of those succeed in terms of usage and Web-scalability, VC funding would follow if proven in a web-scale consumer environment.
  • Semantic technology isn’t a market, it’s an enabling technology.Pollock asserted that and I’d agree with him, it’s much like text analysis in that regard (see below).
  • Standards are baked – RDF/OWL/XML. There may be some fiddling around the edges, but judging by the number of standards bodies endorsing or adopting those two (OASIS, ISO, W3C and OMG), the job seems to be largely done for now.
  • Sem tech vendors and users need to understand that text analysis using NLP or statistical methods isn’t the enemy here, and if you can fix search rather than scoff at it, you might have a winner. I saw too much berating of Google as ‘not getting it’ and text analysis as being ‘shallow’ for my liking.
  • Finally, 1,000 people is a lot of people to attract to a conference about semantic technology. It was 600 last year and although I wasn’t there last year, those that were told me it was the first year that people started to move beyond the theoretical (semantic technology has the potential to do this!) to the actual. And given that there were a very large number of European there, a similar conference on that continent would seem to make sense to me – attendees I spoke with didn’t know of such a thing, but if you do, please let me know in the comments.

Now we know: Alterian buys Mediasurface

Mediasurface announced there was an acquisition in the works, we just didn’t know who the acquirer would be. But word came on Friday that it is fellow UK-based Alterian, a provider of email, database and operational marketing tools.

So it’s another step in the direction of WCM becoming a key component of online marketing. Though, as Tony Byrne rightly points out, not all WCM deployments are for marketing purposes. And I would say Mediasurface in particular has not been as focused on marketing as some competitors.

It will be interesting to watch as this one shakes out. Alterian is a more profitable company than Mediasurface, particularly as Mediasurface has struggled with losses of late. It also has a stronger presence in North American, something Mediasurface has failed to attain.

Alterian doesn’t have a direct sales force though and is sold almost entirely via its channel partners. These partners could help bring Mediasurface to more geos, but at the high-end where the flagship Morello product from Mediasurface plays, WCM sales can be long and not typically entirely channel based. Mediasurface also has not one but three WCM products in its portfolio and Alterian will have to determine where best to focus its efforts if it’s looking at an ‘integrated suite.’

More exec changes at Vignette

Vignette’s industry analyst day was last Thursday and, as Guy Creese notes, these are often interesting because “Vignette personnel vanish and new people turn up to take their place with nary a word, so it’s always fun to figure out who’s missing in action based on last year’s agenda.”

Guy’s having some fun at Vignette’s expense of course, but it’s no secret Vignette has had a lot of executive turnover over the last couple of years and it hasn’t stopped. Execs on last year’s analyst day agenda gone this year include Cathie Frazzini, who led Vignette’s partner efforts for a little more than a year and long-time head of products Leo Brunnick. Dave Dutch, most recently of Level 3 Communications, has just replaced Brunnick to run product management and marketing. And Rob Amor, long-time head of Vignette’s EMEA services org, has taken on the corporate BD role from the UK.

Like Guy, this wasn’t my first Vignette analyst day and he’s also right in noting “Vignette’s Analyst Day is typically heavy with customer testimonials.” And this year was no exception. Four of the six customers that presented (including HBS and Vertrue) were fairly new to Vignette, interesting since Vignette has struggled with new license revenue in recent quarters.

Overall Vignette presented a more upbeat outlook than one might expect given the company’s recent financial results. The company has introduced several new products already this year (yes, some are OEMs and some are just enhancements, but it’s still better than what we’ve seen from Vignette in awhile) and has a few more planned before year end. It also acquired video management play Vidavee, which it claims will be integrated before the end of this quarter.

It will likely be a couple more quarters before Vignette’s largely-revamped field organization can make some hay with these new products. If it’s able to do so, the license numbers might start to turn around. We’ll certainly be watching to see.

Oracle readies dedicated 2.0 sales force

Oracle’s president Charles Phillips was in London today hosting a discussion on Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0. Amongst a discussion that Dennis Howlett rightly categorizes as “interesting but not earth shattering” probably the most interesting news was that Oracle is in the process of setting up a dedicated Enterprise 2.0 sales force.

The new sales force will swing into action at the beginning of Oracle’s next financial year in June and will be tasked with turning customer interest in, and understanding of, the potential benefits of collaboration into working projects.

Duplicated across Oracle’s regions and reporting to the regional head, the Enterprise 2.0 sales team lead with the WebCenter platform for composite applications, as well as more traditional software products such as Oracle Portal and what was formerly Stellent content management software. Oracle’s Beehive next-generation collaboration platform will also be in the mix, although Charles was less forthcoming about the details of the new enterprise collaboration product.

What he did say is that the Enterprise 2.0 sales force will be made up of both BEA and Oracle sales and consulting experts and will make use of the Oracle Insight Program consulting service to analyze customers’ business processes to identify opportunities for the deployment of internal and external collaborative applications \.

The sales force will engage with both business and IT managers and will have an eye on enabling enterprise-wide strategic adoption of collaborative software, although most of the obvious opportunities are likely to be departmental or focused on specific applications – such as CRM and SCM.

Charles Phillips noted that there is customer interest in Enterprise 2.0, but that a lot of education is still required to turn that into deployments. He said the question he asked customers is “are there groups of people you’d like to collaborate with more easily?”

Given that most companies are interested in the views of their customers and uncovering unfulfilled demand, the answer to that is invariably “yes”, but then the conversation has to move on to identifying business processes that can make use of collaborative technologies and examining use cases. That will be the role of the new sales force.

With customer deployments thin on the ground Charles also shared some details of how Oracle is making use of collaborative technologies. The company is currently working on a new collaborative environment for training partners on its product stack, for example, in recognition that given Oracle’s rapid rate of acquisitions it is difficult and expensive for partners to keep up to date – and difficult and expensive for Oracle to keep its partners up to date.

On the developer side there’s Oracle Mix, which sees the company extending its collaboration with the developer and user communities beyond its user trade shows, and providing an environment where it can quickly respond to customer feedback. Oracle is also using collaborative technologies within its internal developer and sales organizations to make it easier for employees to identify experts and expertise with the organization.

Kathleen recently noted that social enterprise or Enterprise 2.0 software is not a market in and of itself and that the market for internal applications is likely to be dominated by IBM and Microsoft given their dominance in traditional collaboration software. If Oracle is to crack this market, it probably does need to be more proactive about taking the Enterprise 2.0 message to existing and potential customers.

If we assume that Enterprise 2.0 is not a market, then a dedicated Enterprise 2.0 sales force is probably not a long-term strategy. In terms of identifying new collaborative application opportunities the market and pointing customers in the right direction, it does make sense, however.

What did come across in the conversation is that this is designed to be a practical and pragmatic approach that will hand-hold customers into Enterprise 2.0 adoption, rather than just slapping some 2.0 t-shirts on the sales team and sending them off on the back of the bandwagon.

FAST-Stellent – what might have been

The combination of search, text analysis and content management is turning into one of the central memes of this blog. This wasn’t deliberate, although it’s something we’ve deliberated internally for a couple of years.

There were plenty of partnerships between search and content management vendors around, but they seemed to us to be either at the press release level, i.e. little more than marketing, or to be as a result of a small handful of one-off projects in the field.

But it turns out others within the industry were thinking about much deeper integrations even if they weren’t saying so publicly.

About a year after Stellent and FAST (both then independent, of course) announced a partnership that resulted in Stellent OEMing FAST’s engine, FAST seriously considered buying Stellent.

I’ve heard from a couple of reliable sources that this was discussed at the highest level within FAST, but it chose not to pursue the deal and instead decided to veer way off its core business and ending up distracting itself to such an extent it got itself tied up in knots. This ended with it being forced to incur about $55m in charges in 2007 that resulted in its share rice plummeting and thus ending up costing Microsoft a lot less than it would have done.

Incidentally, one of those sidebars – Ezmo – a music community site (presented to analysts in February 2007 as a “customer” of FAST, when in fact the phrase that should’ve been used was”‘wholly-owned subsidiary”) was shut down in March.

Of course Stellent went on to be acquired by Oracle in 2007 and we’ve been impressed by the way the database giant has integrated the company so far.

But FAST and Stellent could have made for an interesting combination of the ability to manage and analyze unstructured content, and who knows, FAST-Stellent might’ve been a force to be reckoned with? Now we look to see what Microsoft – something of a toe-dipper when it comes to content management and Oracle, armed with a pretty decent search engine do to prolong this meme.

Social software is getting more…social?

We’ve been busy lately increasing our coverage of social software vendors. In the last few weeks we’ve spoken with: Awareness, CollectiveX, Communispace, GroupSwim, HiveLive, Jive Software, Leverage Software, Lithium Technologies, Ringside Networks, Socialtext, Telligent Systems, and Wetpaint. Some of these meetings were triggered by new product launches and others were initiated by us, reaching out to begin coverage of vendors we hadn’t spoken with before. Most (but probably not all) of these have or will soon result in new or updated 451 coverage.

That’s quite a list and it’s only a list of who we’ve spoken with recently, not of all the vendors in this market and it doesn’t happen to include any of the larger players like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.

So you have to ask, where is the differentiation? I don’t think that’s clear yet. Vendors are coming at this market from a particular area — like forums software or wikis — and tend to be targeting a particular types of implementations (BtoC social media vs. BtoE collaboration) so theoretically competitive products can be quite different under the covers (though often quite similar in marketing).

One thing that seems clear is that many vendors already in the social software realm are busy getting more social. By this I mean grafting on “social” aspects a la Facebook. This can be the ability to have user profiles and the ability to friend people or more sophisticated analysis of who knows what in order to connect users with similar knowledge or expertise.

Just a few recent examples:

Jive Software’s 2.0 release beefs up profiling and social networking capabilties.

The 3.0 release from Socialtext does the same.

Telligent added the ability to track activity data by user in Community Server 2008.

Wetpaint also added more social aspects recently.

Leverage Software has some interesting visualization technology applied to social networks.

Ringside wants to link public networks to business networks.

As vendors originally strong in wikis or forums software, for example, expand social networking and add other features, they’re much more in competition with each other than they once were. And organizations are likely to want to standardize to avoid profile proliferation, if nothing else.

I was talking with someone this morning about how many log-ins one large broadcaster has for its various customer/consumer communities (wikis, message boards etc.) and how it’s a high priority item for that company to fix it. That’s something we’ll no doubt hear more about as more and more products go social.



Who might be after Mediasurface?

Tony Byrne picked up on this statement from Mediasurface that “notes the recent share price and announces that it has received a preliminary approach, which may or may not lead to an offer for the Company.”

The statement goes on to say that “The approach has been received from a UK company that does not compete directly with Mediasurface and the Directors expect that regardless of the outcome of these discussions, the services that Mediasurface provides to existing and future customers will be unaffected.”

What UK company that does not compete directly with Mediasurface might be interested in acquiring it? SDL already took Tridion, a decision it is no doubt happy with given Tridion’s 2007 financial results. Autonomy is the only other company that comes to mind, as a substantial UK-based player in the information management realm, without WCM we might add. WCM doesn’t seem a logical fit for Autonomy’s current portfolio though, which has certainly grown with its 2007 acquisitions of Zantaz and Meridio. These are pretty clear cut compliance / e-discovery related buys without explicit ties to WCM.

So maybe it is an SI or design agency looking to own the delivery technology itself. Mediasurface has checked boxes at the low, mid-market, and high end in WCM, in part by acquiring fellow UK-based WCM play Immediacy in June of last year and Silverbullet out of Holland back in 2005.

Mediasurface may not be the most attractive candidate at the moment, as it had a difficult fiscal 2007 reporting an EBITDA loss of £1.3m on revenues of £11.6m. Losses were blamed on the low-end Pepperio service and market difficulty for the high-end product Morello in the financial services industry and in accounts using Microsoft SharePoint. The company’s stock tumbled on that news to 4p per share, but has been up in April based on acquisition rumors.

Growth in WCM remains strong overall though (451 clients can read analysis of sector growth rates across vendors here) and there are still too many independent players with revenues in the $20m-ish range. More consolidation certainly seems likely.