If you ask someone to name some of the hottest services on the Web today, a few candidates are certain to come up.
The micro-blogging service Twitter was hot among techies last year, and now–thanks to celebrities such as Oprah and Ashton Kutcher-it is well-known among the general public. And, already generally popular is Facebook, the social network that has changed the way people connect with friends and colleagues. While they are starting to seem old in comparison, the classic Web 2.0 technologies also command a lot of mind share.
But what does all of this mean to businesses? Many individuals within companies embrace these technologies, but the businesses themselves have been hesitant to adopt them in-house. Public services such as Twitter and Facebook, while potentially valuable for controlled company information and marketing, are too insecure and uncontrollable for internal company use.
However, that doesn’t mean businesses don’t see the attractiveness of these technologies and the potential they have to improve company productivity. A service like Twitter can easily cut down on company e-mail, improve work and project tracking and keep employees connected. And a corporate-focused social network can boost collaboration and project management, as well as improve knowledge and expertise awareness, within a company.
So while companies may not want to use Facebook and Twitter for internal employee use, products that take the features of these services and add on business-friendly capabilities could be welcome.
For this eWEEK Labs review, I looked at three SAAS (software as a service) products that leverage technologies similar to Twitter, Facebook and classic Web 2.0 products and attempt to revise them for business use: Socialcast, Socialtext and Huddle.
All three have different focuses and take different approaches toward using these new technologies to improve business productivity. Some businesses will find one or more of these products attractive immediately; others will most likely choose to stick to classic collaboration and messaging platforms such as IBM Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint.
However, eventually all companies will use the features found in these products, as it is inevitable that they will become standard features in collaboration and management tools in the not-too-distant future.
The first time business users look at Twitter, they have to be intrigued. It’s a great way to determine the status of employees–where they’re traveling, what they’re working on, and even what they are reading or discussing. And it’s a great tool for sending out questions to the entire company or going over new ideas.
But few companies would want to do this on a public network such as Twitter. The last thing you want is for your competitors to know where your top salespeople are travelling or what ideas your research teams are throwing around.
The solution is to implement an access-controlled Twitter-like service for business use. This is pretty much the idea behind Socialcast.
To get started with Socialcast I simply went to www.socialcast.com and started up a company account (free for up to 10 users, and $1 per month for each additional user with special pricing for large companies).
With the signup, Socialcast provides a unique company URL in the form of companyname.socialcast.com. This is good from a company branding standpoint, though at first it was a little confusing when I forgot my custom site name.
When I first logged into Socialcast, it definitely seemed similar to Twitter, though with a nicer look and some key differences. For example, instead of asking “What are you doing?” Socialcast asks “What’s on your mind?”
Users can enter standard Twitter-like messages about their status and things they are thinking about. Messages can be entered from the main Socialcast screen or sent through e-mail to the service. Socialcast also has some nice tools to categorize and tag messages.
Any message that ends in a question mark gets classified as a Question and can then be searched and sorted in this way. Special tags can also be used within messages to help with filtering and searching.
For example, putting #idea in a message will classify it as an idea. This also works with any tag you want to use simply by putting # in front of a word. So it would be possible to classify all sales discussions by adding #sales to these messages.
Messages can have any file type attached to them (with images appearing in the message), and can also be put into company-configurable categories.
Like Twitter, employees can choose to follow other employees on Socialcast and stay up-to-date on all of their messages. Users can reply to other messages both publicly and privately.
A nice feature allowed for the creation of public and private groups; in the latter, users can join and engage in special topic discussions or in discussions private to all but the group members.
Users can choose to integrate external feeds and services, bringing about capabilities similar to those in FriendFeed. However, in a business system, this could potentially get out of hand the way some feeds are constantly updated.
The social networking aspects of Socialcast are fairly basic but effective. Users create profiles with all of their relevant company and contact information, and other users can easily view this data by using the People tab and search within Socialcast.
As an administrator, users can carry out some simple customization and configuration within Socialcast to change the look of pages and add company logos. Socialcast also provides an analytics screen that tracks usage of the system and offers a quick visual glance at the type of discussions occurring.
Socialtext is no stranger to taking cutting-edge Web technologies and converting them for enterprise use. The company has been around for several years, and was known for building enterprise wikis, but over time has been regularly adding other new Web technologies.
This has led to the latest incarnation of the Socialtext service, which is pretty much a smorgasbord of new Web technologies. Along with its classic wiki capabilities, Socialtext (www.socialtext.com) includes a Twitter-like messaging feature, blogs, social networking capabilities and an optional RIA (rich Internet application)-based desktop interface.
These capabilities make Socialtext a lot more robust and feature-rich than Socialcast, but also increase the learning curve. For businesses that want just Twitter-like capabilities, Socialcast is probably a better fit.
But if your business is looking for something more like Facebook for business, Socialtext is probably worth looking at.
The main browser interface of Socialtext is the dashboard. This is a classic customizable widget interface that lets users get a quick birds’ eye view of their projects, business connections, tasks and important information. From here, users can quickly jump into any task or project.
The main organizational units in Socialtext are Workspaces. Businesses can create Workspaces for projects, tasks and other collaborative group efforts.
For the most part, the core part of a workspace is a classic Socialtext wiki. I found this to be a very good wiki implementation, providing rich or plain text editing, lots of good file and document integration, and revision and tracking history.
The microblogging, Twitter-like aspect of Socialtext is called Signals. The question asked in this case is “What are you working on?”–really pushing the business focus. While not as rich as Socialcast, the Socialtext microblogging feature worked very much like Twitter and was effective for sending out status messages or carrying out communications.
I found the social networking aspects of Socialtext to be pretty good. Within the dashboard itself it was easy to keep track of other employees whom I was following. Clicking on another user’s name or image brought up a very detailed profile page, including a list of who the user was following and who was following him or her; what workspaces the user was a member of; and any public updates the user had made within the system. Users can also add custom tags to other Socialtext users. For example, I could tag “Bob” as a Java expert.
For those wanting a non-browser interface into Socialtext, the service also provides a free application called the Socialtext Desktop, which is built using Adobe’s AIR RIA technology. Interestingly, the look and feel of this interface is in many ways different from the main browser interface, with most of the emphasis on the microblogging signals and social networking aspects as opposed to the dashboard and workspaces.
Socialtext is priced at $15 per user per month with volume pricing available. It is offered in both a hosted SAAS model or as an internally deployed appliance system.
Huddle, which is available at huddle.net, is probably the most classic business collaboration application of the three evaluated in this package. In many ways, Huddle is similar to traditional collaboration offerings such as Basecamp and Microsoft SharePoint.
But Huddle also includes some new capabilities, especially when it comes to connecting with and working alongside newer technologies.
Much of the focus of Huddle is around project, file and task management. Huddle workspaces can be used to manage and collaborate on a number of projects and events.
The Huddle dashboard offered a good view into current tasks, projects and workspaces that users were participating in. Once launched into a workspace, a set of additional tools was available.
Within Huddle, tasks could be assigned and tracked, meetings could be scheduled (and even carried out using the free Huddle teleconferencing service), and threaded discussions could take place for each project. A whiteboard feature provided basic but effective wiki capabilities.
The file management capabilities in Huddle were pretty good, allowing for sharing and collaborative editing of a wide variety of files and making good use of the Huddle security model to control access. In the case of Microsoft Office documents, an online viewer made it possible to view content without downloading it to a system.
The social networking aspects of Huddle are very basic, providing only standard information about other employees in the system. However, this may not be such as big deal, as Huddle can be used from directly within other social networking systems.
One aspect of Huddle is its ability to be plugged into networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This means that if your employees are going to be spending time within Facebook anyway, they’ll at least be able to track work and projects within Huddle while they are also keeping tabs on their Facebook friends.
Pricing for Huddle is based on number of workspaces, size of file storage permitted and other premium features. (All versions allow unlimited users.) A basic free version allows one workspace, displays ads in the browser and has no secure connection. A $20-per-month plan allows five workspaces, more storage and secure connections. Two higher tiers offer more features, and volume enterprise pricing is also offered.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected]