All together now: cloud collaboration, social and docs

Cloud is transforming the way people work together in the enterprise, creating a rich opportunity for innovative vendors to make an impact
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

In the emerging enterprise application landscape, collaboration is the business activity most transformed by cloud. The revolution in outcomes is far greater than those wrought by earlier technology-driven advances in global teamwork, such as the telephone, air travel and satellite communications. The Web is the first medium that provides a unified platform for every form of collaboration, whether real-time or asynchronous, by voice, video, document sharing, messaging and so on, letting people select the best combination of channels for the task in hand. All of this is delivered within a readily programmable fabric that automates away many of the barriers to effective organization, co-ordination and prioritization, enabling more productive, timely interactions.

No wonder investors have plowed money into high-flying cloud collaboration startups such as Box, Dropbox, Huddle and others, while the stocks of public companies such as Google and LinkedIn have soared. The transformation now possible in how organizations work is a rich opportunity to make an impact in this previously neglected backwater of enterprise software. But who are the frontrunners among cloud application vendors?

Past, present and future

Earlier generations of enterprise collaboration technology simply aimed to automate existing processes from the physical world. Document management took physical documents and made them electronic (often literally, with scanners). Workflow became the digital doppelgänger of the postboy, moving mail around the enterprise. PCs gave workers personal productivity apps to help them create the same documents faster and better, yet still isolated in their cubicles. Traditional enterprise collaboration has remained sequential and stilted, structured around documents and projects that advance through carefully planned stages.

Right from the start, the Web opened up unprecedented scope to use cloud-based software to collapse distance, slice through timezones and supercharge teamwork in ways that had never before been possible. Some of the earliest cloud applications were online collaboration tools such as WebEx web conferencing, founded in 1996 (and IPO'd on Nasdaq in 2000), and project management platforms like ProjectPlace, founded in 1998 in Sweden. They excelled at enabling interactions across distance and beyond the edge of the enterprise.

But understanding how to really take advantage of these new capabilities has been a slow learning curve for individuals and organizations. Today we're still working out the best way to do things together online that previously we all had to be in the same place to do, such as collaboratively work on a shared document. Among the successes, there have been many failed experiments as vendors try out new ways of enabling these interactions.

That slow progress perhaps explains why people so often talk as if going social was never possible before Facebook came along, even though business is inherently social and, since time immemorial, has involved people collaborating. What's new is that we've never before been able to be social across time and distance, aided by smart automation that helps us get more out of those interactions. While the cloud has made working together simultaneously global and immediate, it's not always self-evident how to translate that into business benefit.

An open field

This is the third blog post in my continuing survey of how cloud is forging new categories of enterprise software. Previous posts discussed what replaces ERP and the redefinition of CRM. Coming next is HR, followed by spend management. This post looks at what to expect in 2013 from the leading cloud vendors in collaboration, social and docs.

With so much yet to be defined in how this category will play out, the field is still wide open. There are huge numbers of players from diverse backgrounds including file sharing, document management, web meetings, collaboration, project management, workflow and social media. Some have evolved with a focus on collaboration within a single enterprise, while others have specialized in enabling collaboration across enterprise boundaries. Inevitably I'll mention only a small selection, so please use Talkback below to add your feedback if you feel I've missed any significant players.

Before I start my review of what to expect from the leading cloud vendors in this crucial field, as ever I must disclose that some may be past or present consulting clients. Others fund my travel to attend their events or brief me over lunch or dinner from time to time. Several work with me in the EuroCloud trade association. They all know not to expect any favors from me in my independent writing, but it's inevitable that with a closer relationship I'm more aware of their activities than those I speak to less frequently.

For reasons previously discussed, this review is strictly cloud-only and does not include hosted versions of on-premise software. Therefore you'll find little-or-no mention of significant on-premise players such as IBM, Oracle, EMC and Autonomy. Nevertheless, the focus is on the enterprise market so I'll only mention SMB solutions in passing. Finally, for far more insight and knowledge than I can include in such a brief overview please also read ZDNet fellow-blogger Dion Hinchcliffe, along with other Enterprise Irregulars Susan Scrupski, Sameer Patel and David Terrar.

Microsoft. As the legacy vendor most closely associated with conventional document creation, Microsoft has most to lose. But this giant has not been sleeping; it is slowly adapting to the new environment. The latest version of its flagship Office suite makes the leap to a cloud-aware, subscription-licensing model, even for home users. This is a canny move to influence the next generation of workers. With entire families running Office 365 Home Premium on up to five devices, sharing files via SkyDrive will become second nature for kids before they even enter the workplace. Meanwhile, the acquisitions of Yammer and Skype have brought cloud-savvy technologies into its collaboration product family. But with its Sharepoint platform at the heart of its enterprise strategy, Microsoft is still focused on enterprise-centric, internally directed collaboration, with a strong dose of old-school structure. It has yet to demonstrate that it can enable flexible teamwork across the enterprise boundary.

Google. The mirror image of Microsoft is Google, which has not done a good job of bringing its cloud savvy to the enterprise collaboration environment. While there are few platforms better suited to simultaneous collaborative editing of shared documents by disparate teams, Google Apps does a lot worse when it comes to producing high quality finished output or in satisfying enterprise governance concerns. Such concerns are seen as a distraction from its core mission. Google Apps is not getting the attention and investment from Google that it needs to be really successful in today's enterprise market. Google would probably argue it doesn't want to cater for the past and remains confident in its ability to develop what tomorrow's cloud-enabled businesses will need. We'll see.

SAP. When it comes to activity-focused collaboration within the enterprise, SAP is a surprise contender. Several acquisitions — most notably Successfactors — and a fair bit of development work have resulted in the creation of SAP Jam, a cloud-based application that powers collaboration in relation to goal management and transactional activity. Launched last October, It's an interesting demonstration of how cloud collaboration can work within a conventional enterprise application stack. But it's aimed at SAP's existing customers and for that reason is not a contender in the wider market.

Box and Huddle. I put these two together as they are both well-funded cloud pureplays targetting the enterprise market with an emphasis on external collaboration around file-sharing. UK-based Huddle is smaller but targets 100-plus user acccounts, whereas the larger US-based Box still has many individual users and microbusiness as well as scaling up to large enterprise accounts, aided by its newly announced partner strategy. Both are worth watching, especially to see the innovations they're able to pursue thanks to their funding. For example, Box has been developing ways of speeding up transfer times across the public Internet, while Huddle is using big data techniques to help predict what files to pre-download for local sync. For more on these two and Dropbox, read my post from last year on Building a platform for files in the cloud.

Jive. My harsh inclusion rules should disqualify Jive Software, which provides a single-tenant product that most customers deploy on-premise. Focussed on collaboration within the enterprise, Jive would argue that many customers distrust the security of the cloud for confidential information exchange, and therefore on-premise must be an option. Nevertheless, the company has moved towards a 'cloud first' development cycle and last year introduced an on-demand SaaS version with a 30-day trial. It's also a leading player that has done much to demonstrate the power of social collaboration in an enterprise setting.

Project management centric. There are many smaller players, such as Projectplace which I mentioned earlier, that have prospered by offering cloud collaboration platforms designed to support projects. Basecamp, the first application created using Ruby on Rails, has a popular following. Daptiv helps enterprises manage repeatable projects. Emphasizing project delivery, Clarizen promotes collaboration as a tool to support execution rather than as an end in itself. Rally Software helps manage development projects for agile application software. There are many others.

Other collaboration centric. There's a long tail of vendors offering point solutions for cloud collaboration. Cisco WebEx remains a leader in web conferencing, though it has abandoned its ambitions to transform that presence into multi-function collaboration platform. Citrix Online is the other major player here, while there's a new generation coming along targetting smaller businesses, including AnyMeeting and Fuzebox. There are a plethora of collaboration and file sharing vendors serving a variety of markets. A long-established US example is Central Desktop, while a more recent arrival from Spain is Zyncro, which tags itself 'Your Enterprise Social Network'. Asana, founded by Facebook alumni, has made a splash in Silicon Valley. Others springing up focus on video and photo sharing, messaging or social streaming.

Other process/activity centric. Finally, a chance to mention Salesforce Chatter, which brings social streams to Salesforce.com users as they go about their work. Enterprises that don't want to be tied to that vendor can consider Tibco's alternative Tibbr, or one of the earliest social business pureplays, Socialtext. Such vendors (and their customers) are working the coalface of getting interactions between people to tie up to processes and transactions that achieve enterprise goals. A cloud startup with a unique approach to bridging these gaps is RunMyProcess, for whom [disclosure: as a paid commission] I wrote a white paper (PDF) in 2011 exploring this fascinating issue.

Other document-creation centric. When everyone's mobile or tablet has a built-in camera, the word 'document' has to be interpreted liberally to include video, audio, images and diagrams. But I dislike using the word 'content' as that implies something passive to be retrieved and consumed, whereas a document in an enterprise context is something to be acted upon or transacted. Using the term 'enterprise content management' (or for that matter 'web content management') encourages a mindset of passive storage whereas organisations today need documents (and web pages) to actively contribute to outcomes.

Therefore, document creation has to be closely tied to collaboration and process. This is a big opportunity for both Microsoft and Google, as discussed above. You'd have thought it would be for Adobe, too, but despite early ambition it has made little headway with its Acrobat.com online offering. Even the addition of electronic signature platform EchoSign seems only to have allowed its rival DocuSign to prosper (much as I predicted, I might add). Even less has been heard from VMware, which looked like it might have had some plans in this direction with its acquisitions of Socialcast, Sliderocket and Zimbra. That leaves Zoho as the other major player here — claiming more than seven million users worldwide — but with much more of an SMB focus. Another long-established player in the SMB space is HyperOffice, and there's a long tail of photo, video and other point solutions.

None of this makes it easy to select the best combination of solutions to meet the specific needs of any individual enterprise. The one certainty is that the landscape will change some more, while buyers will become aware of changing needs as they discover new possibilities. Flexibility and openness therefore have to be watchwords, as change is inevitable.

Editorial standards