We love our Facebook profile, our Twitter account and our gmail account. We also love that almost daily it seems these apps provide something new to try. Now why can't we get the same features and functionality from our company's intranet?
The nature of software development has changed beyond all recognition in recent years, in no small part as a result of the world wide web. Developing websites has changed almost everything that has ever been taught about more traditional, often application focused, development. One aspect, software releases and versions, has been particularly transformed. Gone are the days when software was released on, at best, a yearly cycle. Gone is the anticipation and count down to ‘a new release’ of your favorite software (well, almost).
The Internet Killed the ‘Software Release’
As soon as applications could connect to, and be downloaded from, the Internet, everything changed. Users could download software, and updates and patches started arriving thick and fast. The annual release cycle was to be no more. Freed from physical distribution networks software developers could release as often or as little as they wished.
The web took this concept even further. The notion of a ‘new version’ of an app has been slowly disappearing for some time. The likes of Google and Facebook simply add new features into their existing apps, with the exact ‘version’ of the software no longer in the public consciousness.
‘Beta’ was once a term for a private, often internal, development release of a piece of software. Google changed this, using the term for its own very polished publicly available applications. Gmail is a good example. It was tagged as ‘beta’ for many years, despite being a very fully featured application for nearly the whole of its life. As a result users became numb to the tag, and to versions of software in general. They saw new features being constantly added and began to accept it was the norm.
This was taken even further by Google with the addition of a ‘labs’ section to many of its apps. This allowed end users to turn on and off experimental features themselves, further eroding what it meant to be using a particular version of a piece of software.
Has Enterprise Software Moved at the Same Pace?
These developments haven’t had quite the same effect in the enterprise CMS environment, because they haven’t been allowed to. Companies running this type of software, often on mission critical systems, have much tighter policies and procedures about what can change and when. Moving from one point release of an Intranet CMS platform, for example, to another is a significant task not to be lightly.
As a result, these types of systems, used to develop Intranets and Extranets, have a significant problem in meeting clients expectations. The ‘Intranet 2.0’, as it has become known, is an impossible to hit moving target.
The Web Influences Expectations
The reason? A mismatch between users requirements and the software they end up using. End users develop expectations and mental models based on their experiences of the web. They then bring these models to their workplace and office, expecting something similar. When the shiny new ‘Intranet 2.0’ is launched, or the new social networking platform is made live, they are expecting something based on their experiences of similar software on the web. They are expecting Facebook, Twitter or Amazon.
What they tend to get is an approximation. SharePoint 2010 for example includes a raft of new features since its last release, especially where social networking and ‘web 2.0’ are concerned. Users can have a status and wall, but SharePoint 2010 was released a number of months ago. Since then Facebook have released a raft of new features and functionality. If a client asks for ‘Facebook’, using SharePoint, then it is almost impossible to explain the differences. SharePoint 2010 is the new version, with a specific feature set. Facebook is version.. well… Facebook is basically alive and evolving almost daily.
Web 2.0 is constantly moving, leaving Intranet 2.0 a pale imitation. Intranet 2.0 is doomed to always be several steps behind its Internet cousin. Moving these offerings to the cloud may help this problem, but doesn’t immediately do away with the issue of enterprise IT requiring more control from the software. The only answer for now? Talk to your users and demo functionality where you can. Setting expectations isn’t new advice, but it does work.
About the Author
Chris Wright is a IT consultant and technology writer currently working in London, UK. He writes extensively on web technology, Intranets, and SharePoint.