NewsGator plans to uncouple its enterprise social suite from SharePoint

So far, NewsGator's Social Sites has been a SharePoint-specific add-on

NewsGator is re-architecting its Social Sites enterprise social networking (ESN) suite so that it can be installed independently of Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration server.

The decision isn't terribly surprising, given that Microsoft last summer bought NewsGator competitor Yammer for US$1.2 billion and has ambitious plans to deeply integrate Yammer with SharePoint and other Microsoft products, like Office and Dynamics CRM. However, this decision is a big technology and strategy shift for NewsGator.

"Today Social Sites still runs on SharePoint," said Brian Kellner, NewsGator's executive vice president of products. "As we go forward, we're working on an architecture that doesn't have a dependence on SharePoint, although it can still take advantage of it."

NewsGator's CEO, Daniel Kraft, hinted at this move back in August, when he told IDG News Service that while the company would continue solidifying Social Sites' standing in the Microsoft ecosystem, it would also expand the product's scope to, for example, enterprise applications from SAP. The idea, Kraft said then, would be to let users manage processes from those third-party applications within Social Sites.

Kellner reiterated that an integration with SAP is in the works. From its SharePoint perch, NewsGator already has a level of integration with Chatter --'s ESN module -- and with Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

Back in 2007, NewsGator made a bold and risky decision in designing Social Sites -- today its flagship product -- specifically for SharePoint. Other ESN vendors, including Yammer, built their products to be more platform-agnostic.

NewsGator's bet paid off. As a tightly integrated ESN add-on for SharePoint -- Microsoft's collaboration, content management and intranet server -- Social Sites has a user base of more than 4 million and hundreds of large customers, including JP Morgan Chase, Kraft Foods, Adidas, General Mills, Ericsson and Barclays.

The newly architected, non-SharePoint-dependent Social Sites could make its debut as early as this year.

For now, NewsGator continues to improve Social Sites, and will release on Tuesday version 3.5 of the product, which extends the capabilities of a revamped user interface called Lookout that was introduced in version 3.0 in August of last year.

Lookout will now have links to Microsoft's Exchange and Outlook, so that users can call up their email, calendar and task entries from within Social Sites. Likewise, users will be able to access Social Sites data and capabilities from within Outlook via a new plug-in for the Microsoft email client.

The suite also features a new toolbar called Lookout360 that can be placed on any SharePoint page or web page that gives users access to a variety of Social Sites functions.

Social Sites 3.5 also gives administrators the capability to centrally configure users' Lookout interface by, for example, adding a view that everybody in the company or in a department must have.

Social Sites 3.5 works both with the existing SharePoint 2010 and with the new SharePoint 2013 that is due for release this quarter. SharePoint 2010 users can upgrade to Social Sites 3.5 right away, but NewsGator recommends that SharePoint 2013 users wait until the official release of that version.

Kellner also said that NewsGator is working on linking Social Sites to Office 365, Microsoft's cloud-hosted collaboration and email suite for businesses, which includes SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online. Currently, Social Sites is designed to work best either installed behind the firewall on customer premises or in dedicated hosted servers.

Microsoft already bundles in Yammer with the versions of Office 365 that include SharePoint Online.

ESN suites like Social Sites and Yammer give businesses social media applications similar to the ones in Facebook, Google and Twitter but adapted for workplace use and providing IT controls. Typical ESN functionality includes employee profiles, activity streams, microblogging, wikis, discussion forums, document sharing, online communities, brainstorming software, blogs and content tagging, rating and review.

Increasingly, these ESN suites are being integrated with line-of-business applications, like email clients, ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications, CRM (customer relationship management) software, unified communications products and office productivity suites.

The promise of ESN tools is to improve communication and collaboration among employees, and in some cases with partners and customers, by giving users familiar social media capabilities in a workplace setting.

While demand for ESN software has been growing strongly in recent years, Gartner recently predicted that through 2015, an alarming 80 percent of social business efforts will fail to achieve their intended benefits, due to "inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology."

Gartner recommends that, to avoid failure, organizations first identify how these enterprise social projects will enhance work practices, which in turn requires a deep understanding and often a transformation of how people work and interact.

Underscoring the rising popularity of ESN suites, Gartner also predicted that by 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal ESNs, of which 30 percent will be considered "as essential as email and telephones are today."

Forrester Research forecasts that spending on ESN software will reach $6.4 billion in 2016, up from $600 million in 2010, which would represent a compound annual growth rate of 61 percent.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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