Enterprise messaging

We’ve had a look at some of the twitter-like systems that are based around enterprise usage. This is just a quick knee-jerk reaction from our experience over the last couple of weeks. We wanted to use a system internally, to see if there was any advantages over email, and perhaps to think about how to take advantage of some of the social momentum that is around at the moment.

Initially we used an installation of Laconica, now StatusNet, which is a twitter clone that runs internally on a Unix system and then we setup corporate sites at both Yammer and Present.ly to see the advantages the full connection to the web would bring. It will be interesting to monitor their usage over the next couple of months as we try them for a project or two.

The Laconica software gives a similar experience to Twitter, but is restricted to our intranet. This is one of the problems though. I think that people are already used to having Twitter clients on all sorts of devices; I twitter from home, from work, from an iPhone and from within other applications. Most of these clients cannot connect to any services other than Twitter, so there is not the richness of both facilities and locations available to the user on an internal system. Although it professes to have groups, there is no privacy there at the moment; they are simply like email groups for ease of ending messages. (Edit: StatusNet have just has a big investment to create a hosted solution, so it will be interesting to see how they develop)

Yammer and later Present.ly are more flexible. They have built themselves as enterprise aware and their availability is almost as wide as Twitter’s. The system runs on their own servers normally, but they could be installed internally for a more private experience. However, I think that users need to be able to get to it everywhere, any time, otherwise there isn’t the flexibility to stay with the conversation. They have clients for most devices, for Outlook and other mail systems. The ability to have private groups brings both privacy features and an ideal way to keep the conversations relevant to most other users. Yammer has been tested here before and didn’t get much of a take up. Once a project was established however, it has been taken up quickly because it has become the focal point for the group. It is a lighter and more specific conversaton than group emails, yet everyone can see what is happening. It also has a built in organizational chart, but I’m not sure quite where the benefits lie there.

Present.ly was tried slightly later and has the disadvantage that a couple of groups are already on Yammer. It has some advantages, such as having more clients (with source code!), better file sharing, more of a newsreader client in the browser where you can add your own feeds. It just has the feel of having more up-to-date facilities and a team with fresher momentum. It has not taken off here yet because there is not a project to give it that spark, but I think that it may live longer than the internal only Laconica system. Yammer and Present.ly should both have facilities to connect via email and twitter, but there have been a few hiccups with that. It either takes too long, or in the Yammer email case, it needs a confirmation email before the first email is sent to the system. This is hardly instant messaging. Present.ly has the advantage of being free. You can administer it and add other domains with the Admin account. If you need to Administer the Yammer system, you need to start paying, per user, per month. I think that’s a drawback; you need to be able to control your system from the start of the trial..

What might be needed is a corporate client version of FriendFeed which can connect to several systems. Let me Twitter normally but also send snippets to my corporate followers to keep up with technology. Let me send files to be available to other users, but only to a group of people within the company. What’s missing at the moment is more of the privacy and file versioning facilities that we are used to from project management systems such as FogBugz, Basecamp and the one that I’m testing at the moment teamworkPM. I’d like to be able to update tasks and projects through the same set of interfaces that I’m using for instant messaging; it could be the most convenient, so long as I don’t fill the stream with messages that put off the conversationalists.I definitely have the desire to move away from email and the unending noise of uninteresting communications. Twitter has that feeling of energy and the 140 characters makes it succinct enough to let the messages roll by. I want that experience in my corporate world.

Another paper from last year that gives a good flavour for these different systems is on the Pistachio Consulting site. They show a more in depth coverage of facilities, but it’s difficult to see how a particular will work for you until you try it. I suggest you try with a few users on one project. It’s also interesting to look back at this paper from 12 months ago and see how the systems have developed since. There will be some winners and some losers, no doubt.

If you do have some programming talent available, I would also think of rolling my own. All the systems have an API and many are similar to the Twitter API so clients can be built to fit a particular corporate situation. The Pownce system was taken over by SixApart who produce the TypePad blogging system. They have now released their API for their cloud based messaging backend and have an open source massaging system called Typepad Motion which is an evolvment of Pownce. I’m sure others will come up with similar systems but theirs looks pretty easy to develop for. On the .Net side, Yonkly has an opensource or hosted system that looked good. The flexibility of a custom development is that it can fit around your business and not be a mash-up of smaller applications that overlap and cause confusion.

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