Microsoft, other firms take aim at Enterprise 2.0 market with new tools

The goal: meld corporate data with social networks, mashups

Microsoft Corp. and a slew of other companies will roll out new tools this week designed to help companies meld internal data with social networks, mashups or other tools like iGoogle that originated in the Web 2.0 world.

The goal of these new technologies, which are being unveiled at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference that begins Monday in Boston, are to help foster the adoption of Web 2.0 tools for specific business processes and applications while infusing them with the security and management features embedded in traditional enterprise tools like Microsoft's SharePoint Server.

Microsoft and several partners are announcing new social networking, RSS feeds and other Web 2.0 technologies that allow integration with SharePoint Server 2007 so users can integrate internal company data with outward-facing applications like external customer and partner communities. Awareness Inc., NewsGator Technologies Inc. and WorkLight Inc., for example, are all announcing updated versions of their Enterprise 2.0 tools integrated with SharePoint. Microsoft will also announce nine partners that have released or will release Enterprise 2.0 tools integrated with SharePoint. And Serena Software Inc. plans to offer updates to its enterprise mashup server on Tuesday.

In addition, Microsoft on Thursday is expected to detail a new enterprise social networking prototype called TownSquare now being developed by Microsoft Office Labs. TownSquare is an enterprise news feed that allows users to receive news about managers, friends and colleagues in one place, Microsoft said. Microsoft also plans to announce a new open-source project for the development of podcasting applications in SharePoint Server.

WorkLight today will roll out WorkLight for SharePoint, which allows employees to access and update SharePoint from popular Internet consumer tools like Windows Live, iGoogle and Facebook. The software allows users to access information like documents, updates and contact information from Web and desktop gadgets running on different consumer-oriented Web tools, said David Lavenda, WorkLight's vice president of marketing and product strategy. Users can also view and revise enterprise application data from secure gadgets running as SharePoint Web Parts, allowing the "to do" daily tasks like time reporting and purchase approvals from their SharePoint dashboard, he added.

"[Users] don't have to dig for the documents; they are right there in the home page or RSS feed you have in front of you," Lavenda said. "WorkLight allows users to use SharePoint as another back-end system so they can do things like get an update of all the documents that affect their jobs on iGoogle."

For example, he said, a salesperson could use iGoogle with a WorkLight gadget to receive updates about products from multiple back-end systems, including those that show sales and product demand in a particular region. Then the user could directly order products from iGoogle and have them shipped to a particular customer, he added.

"It is really from start to finish a full business process that impacts the bottom line," Lavenda said. "These are the types of applications we are seeing."

For its part, Awareness will announce today platform integration with SharePoint for internal applications with Awareness-developed social networks on the Web. Awareness has packaged its widgets to operate as Web Parts that can be used to monitor the content of external Web communities. Thus, users can monitor community content, contribute content -- such as creating a post, starting a wiki or responding to a discussion -- or search content from directly within SharePoint.

"We bring the power of Web 2.0 external facing communities to SharePoint," said Eric Schurr, vice president of marketing and sales at Awareness. "You'd like your SharePoint users to participate in communities without having to log into that community directly. When you look at places like Facebook or LinkedIn, a lot of what make those sites very popular is the connectivity they provide between people -- being able to form a group of people I care about or maintaining a status online of what I'm doing."

Using the Awareness software, community administrators can build structured social areas with security and customization or users can create ad-hoc social areas that other users can join by invitation or request.

Also on Monday, NewsGator Technologies will announce the general availability of Social Sites 2.0, an upgrade of its social computing technology for SharePoint. The new software allows users to create ad hoc communities and supports the easy discovery of these groups through customized recommendations, tag clouds, search and lists of recently created or popular communities, NewsGator said. In addition, the tool provides employees with a social graph -- a list of their connections within the company based on factors like common interests, common community membership and common RSS subscriptions, said Laura Farrelly, NewsGator's director of marketing.

"The system will recommend me to colleagues who are very similar to me," Farrelly noted. "The benefit is to be able to quickly discover people who are like me or work on similar projects. In a large company I may not even know ... someone is working to try to solve the same problem I am."

Oliver Young, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. who focuses on Enterprise 2.0, noted that last year's conference included lots of analysts, vendors and pundits talking to each other. "This year we're going to see a lot more end-user companies, a lot more businesses who are really trying to make use of those tools to join that conversation."

Organizations, including Wachovia, Federal Express and the CIA, are scheduled to speak at the conference about their adoption of Web 2.0 tools in the enterprise as part of the transition to Enterprise 2.0.

Young said social networking and mashups are two of the main areas currently piquing corporate interest.

"I see the main value proposition with mashups is the idea that IT is actually a bottleneck in a lot of cases where all the little application projects, the little integration projects never get the time devoted to them," Young said. "Mashups for many are becoming a way to solve those problems. It is something that desperately needs to be solved."

The Boeing Co., for example, is using IBM's Mashup Center -- which shipped last week -- as part of a demonstration project with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security that looks to support interagency operations through the use of a network-enabled infrastructure.

"We found that there were situations where [agencies] needed capabilities that in many cases you don't know you need them until you need them," said Paul Comitz, program manager for Boeing's Network-Enabled Operations demonstration. "The mashup technology is a nice match for that sort of scenario. It provides the capability to combine existing data and services and create unique lightweight network-enabled applications."

For example, the company has built an application using mashups for analysts working with federal agencies that are first responders in a natural disaster like a hurricane or some other emergency. Those users might want to query by geography which airports are open in a specific area during a disaster, Comitz said.

"Then after that query, they may want to find those airports that have runway lengths of 5,000 feet or greater with an eye toward landing a C-130 for rescue operations," he said. "That situation actually came up during some of the nature disasters of the last few years. It takes time to find that information [and] it is a manual process assimilating data from multiple sources. With the mashup technology, you can combine a couple of widgets and build an application where you can do that in near real time. It is a much more powerful paradigm to have a set of widgets, a tool kit of really basic capabilities that an operational expert or subject manner expert can combine in ways that you can't articulate in the conference room during the standard sort of development paradigm that large organizations do."

Also at the conference, Serena Software on Tuesday is slated to announce a new version of its Mashup Composer -- available in the third quarter of this year -- that is aimed at letting users drag-and-drop widgets, RSS feeds and Flash components into what the company calls rich interface mashups. The tool will mix any kind of widget or rich Internet application, including Adobe Flash, Amazon Search, Flickr, Microsoft Silverlight, YouTube and any of the 30,000 Google Gadgets, the company said.

These can be "mashed" with businesses process and data from internal applications to deliver these rich interface mashups, said Tim Zonca, Serena's director of product marketing. These mashups are made of widgets that are aware of what information is changing in an enterprise and can update themselves automatically to make sure that a user has the most recent information, he said.

Finally, Microsoft's new Podcasting Kit for SharePoint (PKS), due to be detailed today, is a free open-source initiative aimed at providing companies an easy way to create, manage and distribute podcasts. PKS is built on the SharePoint Server and Microsoft Silverlight platforms and is compatible with the Zune, Windows Mobile devices, PCs and other devices that play podcasts.

According to Microsoft, PKS allows users to:

  • Share content by producing personal podcasts and publishing content on PKS.
  • Connect with podcasters via integrated instant-messaging programs.
  • Find the most relevant content using a rating system, tags clouds and search functions.
  • Receive automatic podcast updates by subscribing to RSS feeds.
  • Play podcasts in real time using Silverlight and progressive playback.
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