Google Apps missing enterprise social-networking revolution

Google is mum on plans to add Facebook-like features to its collaboration and communication business suite

By now, many collaboration software providers consider it a must to have an enterprise social-networking component in their suites, but Google, which shook up this market with its Web-hosted Apps product in 2006, stands out for lacking this capability.

Many large and small collaboration vendors, including IBM, Microsoft, Socialtext, Box.net and Jive Software, have responded to demand from CIOs and IT managers for enterprise social-networking capabilities in collaboration suites.

As has happened before with wikis, blogs and syndication feeds, the popularity of social networking among consumers has propelled it to the workplace, where employees have found great collaboration and communication benefits in Facebook-like systems designed for use in companies.

In fact, some collaboration vendors are already on their second iteration of their enterprise social-networking technologies, giving them microblogging capabilities popularized among consumers by Twitter.

With so much activity in this space, Google seems to be trailing and slow on the uptake, as Apps remains a suite centered on e-mail communications and document sharing, devoid of social-networking capabilities.

This hasn't gone unnoticed by Apps administrators.

"In our domain, we'd definitely find that it'd be beneficial to have some type of interface into social networking," said Douglas Menefee, The Schumacher Group's chief information officer.

The health care company, which provides emergency medical staff and management services to hospitals, is testing the Apps Premier version of the suite with an eye toward buying licenses for about 2,500 physicians and nurses that it works with as independent contractors.

"As a company, we're continuing to look at how we can better utilize the concept of social networking as it relates to project management and updates, and have a little bit more transparency into each other's domains," he added.

Chris Abraham, president and chief operating officer of the online marketing and public relations firm Abraham Harrison LLC, would also find it useful for Apps to offer social-networking capabilities.

The company has 16 employees, two of which work full time, two part time, and the rest are contractors, he said. "We don't have a corporate Facebook. That would be good to have," Abraham said.

It would also be good for Apps as a product, since its contact-management and task-management features leave a lot to be desired, Abraham said.

Asked whether Google plans to add enterprise social networking to Apps, a Google spokesman said via e-mail that the company has no comment about the issue.

Traditionally, Google's enterprise products evolve out of its consumer services, so a ray of light for Apps administrators could be that the company isn't a social-networking neophyte.

Google has a consumer social-networking service called Orkut, which isn't as popular as Facebook or MySpace but has nonetheless a significant user base, especially outside of the U.S.

The company also lets holders of Google accounts create personal profiles, where they can put information about themselves and consolidate access to Google services. A Google profile acts as a user's presentation badge on Google products to other users.

Given that it runs Orkut and the Google profile service, it wouldn't seem too much of a stretch for Google to adapt the existing technology of these two products into an enterprise social-networking component for Google Apps. "I certainly see them going in that direction," said Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish.

Others are already further ahead, though. IBM's Lotus unit launched Connections in June of 2007. That enterprise social-networking product lets administrators set up employee profiles, communities, activity stream broadcasting, blogs, social bookmarking and, soon, wikis. Connections integrates with collaboration products from IBM like Notes and Sametime, as well as with some third-party platforms.

As a sign that IT departments are very interested in enterprise social networking for end-users, Connections became the fastest-growing commercially available IBM software product in its first year of existence, and then last year doubled its base of clients, which includes Colgate Palmolive, Deutsche Bank, Bank of New York Mellon and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to IBM.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has partnered with NewsGator Technologies to provide enterprise social-networking functionality to SharePoint Server.

Socialtext, which started as a niche provider of enterprise wiki software, has built a broad collaboration suite with an enterprise social-networking component, which recently gained Twitter-like microblogging functionality.

This month, Jive Software announced a major revamping of its Clearspace enterprise social-networking suite, renaming it Jive SBS (Social Business Software) 3.0 and significantly expanding its capabilities. In February, Box.net, a specialist in online storage and file sharing for businesses, added enterprise social-networking features to its Web-based system and revamped the layout of its interface.

The fact that Google Apps is lagging behind these and other competitors in this area is a reflection of a larger product-development problem with the suite, McLeish said. "Google is kind of all over the place with Apps. In terms of the cohesiveness of all these applications, they haven't been able to bring that together in a more concrete way," McLeish said.

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