Microsoft SharePoint: Three Sleek Social Networking Alternatives

Microsoft SharePoint 2010 promises more enterprise social networking tools, but if you're still questioning the cost and complexity, here's a look at some lean and mean alternatives.

Microsoft's SharePoint suite started out in the early 2000's as a place to store and manage Office documents, but it has quickly evolved into a vast enterprise information portal and content management system. And more and more it's becoming a "social networking platform."

As the social networking influence of Facebook and Twitter (profile pages, news feeds, status updates, 140-character microblogs) spill over into workplace, more enterprises are deploying social media tools to improve efficiency and communication, and vendors both young (startups SocialText and Jive) and old (IBM's Lotus Connections) are eager to provide the tools.

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MOSS 2007 (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007) integrated social tools through partnerships with companies like NewsGator for RSS feeds and Atlassian for enterprise wiki software. But the MOSS 2007 social features have been viewed as clunky.

"Blogs and wikis in MOSS 2007 were weak compared to best-of-breed solutions," says Rob Koplowitz, principal analyst at research firm Forrester.

SharePoint 2010, now in beta and set for general availability in June, is upping the ante with more native social networking features that Microsoft promises will be easier to use.

Microsoft is relying on the smooth integration of profile pages, RSS and activity feeds, wikis, blogs, and microblogs as it faces the threat of Enterprise 2.0 SaaS (software as a service) vendors that offer specific social tools to businesses at a fraction of SharePoint's price.

"SharePoint 2010's biggest strength, its breadth of capabilities, is also its greatest weakness," says Koplowitz. "For companies not currently invested in SharePoint that are looking to only fulfill a basic need, like deploying a set of publicly facing blogs, the full SharePoint platform will look like a sledgehammer compared to products from companies like Socialtext, Jive, and others."

Such SaaS startups have the advantage of developing new features quicker than big companies like Microsoft and IBM can. But SaaS companies have much to fear now that Microsoft has made social tools a priority in SharePoint 2010, says Koplowitz. SaaS upstarts also have to walk the thin line of both competing with SharePoint and making their software compatible with it.

Yet the fact remains: social tools are just a portion of the SharePoint platform and procuring and managing the entire SharePoint suite is a huge task. It entails license and server costs, the training of staff, providing virus protection and backup, and possibly paying for consultant help. It's worth noting that a stripped down, online version of SharePoint has been available since November 2008 and Microsoft cut prices for it in November 2009. SharePoint 2010 will come as both as an on-premises and hosted online offering.

Nevertheless, if you're a company that just wants a powerful set of social networking tools, implementing the whole SharePoint suite is not a wise choice, says Koplowitz.

"That's like killing a whole buffalo when all you want is a sandwich," he adds.

Here are three SaaS vendors that provide specific enterprise social tools.

SocialText

SocialText, founded in late 2002 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., is one of the earliest vendors to adapt Web 2.0 tools to the business world, now referred to as Enterprise 2.0.

SocialText's flagship product, the SocialText Workspace wiki tool, allows workers to communicate, share information and content, add comments, and pose questions to groups.

The integrated SocialText suite also includes: a personalized homepage called Dashboard where users can access employee profiles, wiki pages and other social networking features; a Twitter-like microblogging tool called Signals; and SocialText People pages, the equivalent to Facebook's profile pages.

SocialText platform is available as a hosted service or an on-site or hosted appliance. It can be purchased as a standalone suite (click here for pricing information) but it is also designed to work within SharePoint and Lotus Connections.

Jive

Portland, Ore.-based Jive has been around since 2001, and, like SocialText, is a SaaS company that aims to connect the enterprise through consumer-friendly social networking technologies.

Jive's software suite, Jive SBS (social business software), combines collaboration software and social applications. SBS is in its fourth generation. Some of its features include: wikis, blogs, discussion forums, dashboard-like homepages, personalized profile pages, status updates, tagging, bookmarking, document creation and management, and private storage.

Jive reported an 85 percent year-over-year increase in revenue for 2009 and last month acquired social monitoring company Filtrbox for an undisclosed sum. SBS is a standalone suite that, like SocialText, also connects with SharePoint.

Atlassian

Atlassian, an Australian company founded in 2002, has a broad set of software tools that help IT pros and developers track software bugs, manage help desk tickets and test and edit code.

Atlassian's software development tools are led by JIRA for issue tracking and project management and JIRA Studio, a hosted suite of tools for development teams. But it is probably best known for its enterprise wiki software, Confluence, through which workers create intranet pages and communicate with co-workers in real time, blog, and edit and share documents. Like the Jive and SocialText offerings, Confluence provides a main page (dashboard) with access to all workspaces, people and content.

The Confluence enterprise wiki can be purchased on its own, although Atlassian is a Microsoft partner and Confluence connects with SharePoint.

Shane O'Neill is a senior writer at CIO.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com/CIOonline.

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