Analysts have recently released reports on vendors providing online subscriptions for social business software. This post takes a short look at their findings and delves a little deeper into the factors that influence decisions.

Update: A summary presentation of this post has been uploaded to Slideshare and is embedded below:

— Original post —

Gartner recently released a magic quadrant for social software in the workplace:

Gartner Magic Quadrant Social Software in the workplace 2012

The usual suspects dominate the leaders quadrant, with Microsoft claiming double thanks to the recent acqusition of Yammer. The choice of niche players is interesting since most target specific social applications (media-related rather than process-related). Social software in the workplace ought to accomodate a more broader range. And the leaders are predominantly platforms that the niche players would need for certain elements of their solution, namely the ability to send emails…

Gartner has also recently released a separate magic quadrant for social CRM:

Gartner MagicQuadrant for Socia CRM 2012

You wonder if it makes sense to have separate quadrants, as the worlds of CRM tools and collaborative workspaces appear to be merging. Recent announcements at the Dreamforce conference would suggest that Salesforce.com has the likes of SharePoint, Yammer, Box and Jive firmly in its sights.

Forrester recently released their wave for cloud platforms for online collaboration and do expand a little beyond the social media play with Box joining the leaders. But the choice of vendors is also a bit odd – Cisco has a range of products and services that fit various scenarios, but currently do not have a cohesive approach to match the others and Citrix? Possibly snuck in with the acquisition of Podio but would question its position on that basis.

Forrester Wave for Cloud Platforms of Online Collaboration Software Vendors

How useful is this research if you’re considering a move to online social business software? A little maybe but not a lot.  Analysis only really matters when it predicts an unexpected outcome. Beyond that, it is more than likely to be used to justify a decision already made.

There are five factors that are pivotal to a decision to use any of the online software vendors listed by the analysts:

  1. Do you already have a preferred vendor?
  2. Platform or specific scenario?
  3. Intended life span?
  4. Size matters
  5. Do prices matter?

1. Preferred platform vendor?

If you already have a preferred vendor for information work, you’re more likely to stick with what you know because it should mean lower costs for training, content migration and disruption. Deciding to change would indicate a major shift in strategy that is worthy of a blog post on its own. Unsurprisingly, the traditional mainstream vendors for collaborative working (Microsft, IBM-Lotus) are agressively targeting cloud computing scenarios to prevent this from happening.

However, the shift to online and mobile working may justify shifting strategies for some organisations… Complicating the matter these days is cross-platform device support. Whilst many organisations may use Microsoft or IBM as the platform for collaborative working, their employees are increasingly likely to be using other vendors’ devices, namely Apple iAnything and Google Android. Your mobile strategy should play a part in any decisions regarding online service platform vendors.

2. Platform vs specific scenario?

Gartner has separate quadrants for social business and social CRM and Forrester describes a wave covering online collaboration software. These are incredibly broad categories spanning content management, communications, search, forms-based processes, business intelligence… There are few vendors targeting all those scenarios at once, so your options are immediately limited if you want them all.

However if you are dabbling in the world of online social software and have a specific immediate need, then a niche solution is likely to be quicker to deploy and more useful for a limited set of people. This can cause complications in the future, if the solution is successful and needs to either be rolled out to everyone or replaced with a platform-based alternative (likely if the original solution can’t scale). However, such concerns are often over-estimated in advance. Trying to figure out how to scale-out a successful application is a good problem to have.

There is another category that fits between broad platform and specific scenario: enterprise applications. Enterprise applications aren’t strictly platforms because they rarely integrate easily with other services but often scale to a size comparible with any platform and that dominates any niche alternatives. In the social business space, the prime example is Salesforce.com. Salesforce started out focused on CRM but has expanded into service desk management, instant communications and recently announced adding file-sharing and collaborative capabilities. That’s a platform in the making.

3. Intended Lifespan

The obvious question is: what’s the expected lifespan of the vendor? If they are a new entrant, will they still be around in 12 months time? What if they are acquired by Microsoft and your standard platform vendor is IBM or Oracle? (and vice versa). We are talking about online services – if the data is stored ‘in the cloud’, what happens if the vendor goes bust? Do you get any warning to recover your data before the service is shut down?

It is fair to say that the mainstream vendors are unlikely to disappear overnight, even if they themselves occasionally shut down some of their products as their own strategies shift. For everyone else, who knows? The first question to ask is: What’s the anticipated or intended lifespan of the deployment? Treating the deployment as a trial or experiment will have a very different expected lifespan to rolling out a platform for all users to be migrated to.

4. Size Matters

The organisations with the most to benefit from emerging trends are always the biggest and the smallest. See related post: Who wants to be in the middle? But size also matters when deciding on an online software vendor. Has the application or platform been tested or proven to scale to meet the needs of your organisation?

If you look at the case studies for niche softeware vendors, they will often include brand names. They will rarely (never) say what percentage of the organisation are actively using the software. Large organisations are usually the ones with budgets to experiment with trials and limited deployments for small teams. If you are taking a bet on a niche or challenger software vendor, first run a trial for a group-size comparible with the user base the solution is intended for. It’s not just performance to be concerned with. Many features that look fantastic in a limited demonstration simply don’t maintain effective functionality beyond a certain team size.

5. Do prices matter

Moving to online services means moving to recurring subscription mode. Subscriptions are obviously not the total cost of the deployment but, as is the nature of online subscriptions, they are ongoing and charged monthly for the duration of the deployment. The table below outlines some of the prices, from data available at the time of writing:

Google
Apps
Office
365 P1
Office
365 E2
IBM
SmartCloud
Salesforce
Professional
Salesforce
Enterprise
Jive
Essentials
Huddle Box Igloo
Category Niche
Platform
Niche
Platform
Mainstream
Platform
Mainstream
Platform
Mainstream
Ent. App
Mainstream
Ent.App
Mainstream
Scenario
Niche
Scenario
Niche
Scenario
Niche
Scenario
per user
per month
$0/$5 $6 $14 $10 $65 $125  $18  $15* $11** $12***
10 users
per month
$0/$50 $60 $140 $100 $650 $1,250  $180  $150 $110 $99
100 users
per month
$500 n/a $1,400 $1,000 $6,500 $12,500  $1,800  $1,500 $1,100 $1,200

Pricing notes: (all amounts listed are per user per month unless otherwise stated)

  • Google Apps is free for up to 10 users with limited service options and free for education uses. Add Vault (e-discovery) for $5
  • Microsoft Office 365 has a range of plans. P1 is most comparible with Google Apps (but limited to 50 users) and E2 is most comparible with IBM SmartCloud. (E1 has view only editing of Office docs in the browser for $8, E3 includes full Office on the desktop and archiving for $20, E4 includes PBX integration for $22). Office 365 is free for education
  • IBM SmartCloud Engage Advanced listed. Standard version also available for $8 per user per month (basic). Archiving is an extra $4
  • Salesforce has limited versions for up to 5 users ranging from $5 to $25 and separate subscriptions for Service Management, Force.com (apps) and Data. Chatter (instant messaging) is free.
  • Jive pricing based on Essentials+. Cheaper version available without Office or Outlook integration for $12. Separate solutions available for govenrment, no pricing indicated.
  • Telligent were going to be included but don’t publicly list pricing. Somebody posted a sample from 2009. Correlates with what a client experienced. Complicated and expensive (based on servers and CPUs, not user subscriptions)
  • Huddle do not publicly list pricing. Details based on blog post by Michael Sampson from 2011. * Must purchase minimum of 10 users
  • Box is free for personal use, ** must purchase minimum of 3 users
  • Igloo *** requires a minimum purchase of 10 users, then blocks (25, 50, 99), per user from 100+ users.

To summarise, the niche scenarios are priced very similar to the mainstream platforms. However, in reality, the price is double for niche scenarios since they don’t include the basics of collaborative working – an email address. All the mainstream platforms include email services.  Spot the elephant pricing in the room – the enterprise application.

So how to choose an online service for social business?

To wrap up, here’s some guidelines when considering a move to online services for collaborative working. The following are our opinions based on research and hands-on experience and those opinions will change as the services continue to mature and evolve:

Requirement Recommendation
Needs to include email services and/or must have longevity Start with one of the mainstream platforms. Your choice between IBM, Microsoft and Google depends on if you have any preference or prior history.

  • We have concerns about Google’s strategy, particularly for deployments larger than 100 users for anything other than basic email and calendaring services.
  • Microsoft’s upcoming releases of Office and SharePoint 2013 are impressive and our preferred solution for collaborative working (as are the current 2010 versions). But the platform is still weak if you require cross-device and cross-browser support and Internet Explorer is dragging its heels to support the latest web standards such as CSS3 when compared with the other main browsers (Firefox, Chrome and Safari). The mobile solutions lean too heavily towards a Windows-only strategy at the moment.
  • IBM makes it difficult to evaluate hands-on independently so we have no opinion on their services.
We just want some basic social media or networking capabilities Run a trial for any of the niche application vendors.

  • For social networking and conversational collaborative working, we would have said Yammer first, but now that they have been acquired by Microsoft that may make them unappealing to some organisations.
  • For intranet-style alternaties, we’ve trialed various niche options such as Podio (acquired by Citrix) and found them all to fall short of what SharePoint can do quite easily when it comes to content and task management.
  • Jive is the market leader spanning all things social-oriented, and the most expensive. It’s been a while since we last looked at it so can’t comment on if the extra cost is worth it.
We’re only a small team or organisation (less than 50 users) The choice depends on your business strategy.

  • If you have potential to gain competitive advantage or significant organisational efficiency through better use of information technology, invest wisely. This should include considering Salesforce.com despite the higher prices.
  • If you want to experiment with a completely different style of working, leveraging social networks and mobile devices, you may find the platforms looking outdated. Experiment with the niche providers but expect to keep iterating as new solutions appear on the horizon and current ones dissolve. This is an emerging market.
  • If you want a cheap and basic service for email, a simple web site and a bit of content management, go with Google Apps. But if you want to business efficiency gains, you’ll need Office 365 for SharePoint Online (Google Sites isn’t good enough).

And the disclaimer – what do we use?

Joining Dots Ltd currently subscribes to four cloud platforms: Google Apps for Business, Microsoft Office 365, WordPress and DropBox. We use Google Apps for the basics: email, calendars and contacts. We use SharePoint Online (within Office 365) for the company intranet and internal processes due to its forms and workflow capabilities, with WordPress used for all public-facing web sites. We use DropBox for file synchronisation. One day, Microsoft’s Skydrive might become reliable enough to replace it but it’s not there yet… For hardware, we predominantly use Apple devices.

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