Social Software, Feature or Product?

October 22, 2011
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We have this debate running about social software and whether it’s, for the most part anyway, a set of features that should be embedded in other products / platforms, or long term stand-alone products. The evolution of new applications can take a few different paths but there seems to be a pattern of sorts.

We have this debate running about social software and whether it’s, for the most part anyway, a set of features that should be embedded in other products / platforms, or long term stand-alone products. The evolution of new applications can take a few different paths but there seems to be a pattern of sorts. It goes like this, some one sees a business need (or opportunity to create awareness of a need) and builds some software to address that need. Others see the need and either 1. copy the feature set as their own product, 2. create a competing but different product or 3. extend an existing product to meet the business need. All of these can exist simultaneously but if the product in #3 has a strong market following already it often spells the death of #1 and #2 (death by acquisition, or by changing direction, or by going out of business).

Once the product exists there are a few ways that the story plays out:

  • The product has unique value and develops a rich feature set that defines the new market – survives as a stand-a-lone product and market
  • The product has value but is not unique enough to survive on its own, thus it becomes a feature of some other product.
  • The product and feature set are unique and the foundation for a new approach to solving some business problems, becoming a next generation platform (and probably pulls in a few other features / products as well)

 If the product is really a feature then there are a few potential outcomes to that as well:

  • The feature vendor aggregates other features (from other vendors or developed in house) into a richer product that can survive stand-a-lone.
  • The feature gets merged into a product with a richer and complimentary feature set, thus surviving embedded into another application.
  • The feature gets consumed by the OS or by a platform.  OS’s and platforms consume features like a black hole consumes nearby matter.
  • And lastly there is the possibility that the product could really be a feature, but it gains such broad acceptance that it becomes a standard. Think Google and search. When a product becomes a verb, as in google something, it has stickiness and the legs to survive on its own (and in the case of Google search also formed the core of a business model innovation).

Just because the feature gets consumed it doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable, by the way. Actually the opposite is true, it’s so valuable that vendors want to embed it into their products. It also doesn’t mean that at some point in the future the feature might not emerge in some stand-a-lone model again. Internet browsers are an example of both. During the great browser wars of the 90’s Microsoft won by letting the OS consume the feature set, Internet Explorer (IE), thus becoming the default browser for the majority and effectively killing off Netscape. Years later though, and perhaps because Microsoft did not continue to keep the feature set up to date (or at least good enough), several new competitors have emerged as stand-a-lone products again, Google Chrome (which Google is trying to make into a next generation OS), Mozilla Firefox and Opera. Safari is also gaining share but it’s really a feature of the OS as well.

There are a few current examples of debates going on around new products (or features), specifically cloud-based file storage / sync (services like Dropbox, Sugarsync, Box.net, etc) and virtualization. The argument around the cloud-based file storage / sync was started by Steve Jobs after Apple’s failed bid to acquire Dropbox, when he claimed that Dropbox was really a feature of an OS. Of course Apple just released it’s own version, iCloud, which is an extension of OS X and IOS, so maybe there’s some weight to the argument. On the opposite side of the argument though, is the fact that both Dropbox and Box.net recently closed very large funding rounds. The virtualization argument, that it’s really a feature of the OS, has been around for a few years. In my opinion though, I think there’s a good chance that virtualization forms a part of a next generation platform.

So let’s apply this concept to social software. Generalizations can be dangerous but in this case, I tend toward the idea that most social software products are in fact features. There are some exceptions of course, but for me, at least for the social collaboration tools and the social CRM tools, I can see a path where they become embedded in other applications in the future (in fact, it’s a part of our predictions for the IT vision of year 2020). There was a time when I was convinced that social features could become a stand-a-lone social platform, but I now think that in fact, the social collaboration tools need to be embedded inside the next generation of enterprise platform so that the functionality can be exposed at the point of activity in a work process, and in context to the specific activity. The idea of creating a social layer, while useful today, is in my opinion, a transition enabling step toward a future (read not yet available, or at least not yet complete) enterprise platform that makes social a part of every application. If you want to read more about my idea of the next gen apps platform, look at this post.

To this point, we’ve already seen quite a bit of merger activity among first generation social start ups, as they try to expand the initial feature set into something broad enough to survive as a stand-a-lone app. In particular a lot of these companies have bought and embedded socialytic features, which is consistent with the idea that analytics also needs to be embedded into the work process, and also contextual. For example Lithium bought Scout Labs, and Attensity bought Biz360. As an example of a large company adding social functionality to an existing product, Salesforce.com bought Radian6. We ‘re also seeing moves to put social collaboration tools into platforms or embed them into other apps like Salesforce.com Chatter, which is a part of the Force.com platform, and SocialCast, that  was acquired by VMWare, with its’ ability to be embedded in other apps, and it appears that VMWare also plans on embedding it into a platform. 

On the social CRM side much of the required functionality is already showing up as extensions to existing CRM solutions and since I believe that companies cannot attempt SCRM until they have a stable CRM base on which to build, this make sense. In some cases though, the functionality has evolved into a stand-a-lone app, at least for now. The areas where we’re seeing social influence CRM, based on our new social business taxonomy, are 1. sales: social sales enablement and sales intelligence, 2. marketing: social marketing automation and 3. customer service: new social communication channels and peer to peer (community-based) support. I think that all of these new features will end up embedded in full CRM systems eventually. We’re already starting to see this in the leading CRM apps like Salesforce.com, and Oracle Siebel and Oracle Fusion. CRM vendor RightNow, which is focusing more on the overall customer experience and has a solid customer base for its customer service apps, has already added community management functionality to its base product by acquiring social software vendor HiveLive. 

There are social products that seem to be well positioned to remain stand-a-lone of course. Social publishing, for example, could exist as a platform that enables building and managing social content like blogs and wikis, or even video.  Innovation management is another area where I think there could be a need for an end-to-end solution that, while integrated with other enterprise software and eventually built on the next gen platform, could stay as a complete suite of innovation apps.

So what does this mean for businesses that are looking for solutions? First I’d say that since we’re in a time of transition, the solutions are evolving rapidly, but taking a wait and see approach is not really an option. For now take stand-alone features that meet your business needs and integrate them into your current enterprise software solution. When available of course, using embedded features that are a part of other apps is maybe a better approach, as long as the software meets your needs, but focusing on meeting business needs outweighs the feature / product argument by a long shot. For “social layer” type apps though, paying enough attention to change management to drive adoption is critical. This is particularly true for social collaboration tools that gain value as more people adopt and use the tools, creating a self-fueling adoption or rejection cycle.