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Social Roadmap for SharePoint and Yammer

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July 8, 2013
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Yammer, a hosted social networking service for organizations, has become Microsoft's preferred option for enterprise social networking. However, the company continues to offer social networking in SharePoint Server 2013 and the SharePoint Online cloud service. Social networking—Web-based communication and sharing similar to that provided by Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—has proven useful inside companies for various many-to-many communications tasks, such as resolving support questions. Microsoft recommends Yammer for enterprise social networking, but Yammer will coexist with SharePoint's social networking features for some time, and companies choosing between them face difficult trade-offs on ease of use, security, and management complexity.

(This report updates "Yammer Begins Merger into SharePoint" on page 6 of the Jan. 2013 Update.)

Yammer: Grassroots Social Networks for Companies

Yammer is a cloud service that enables organizations to create private collaboration sites with some of the features of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other public social networking sites. While it can be purchased with Microsoft's Office 365 services, it is technically a distinct service, with its own user, administrator, and developer interfaces.

A Better Tool for Group Communication and Notifications

Yammer sites enable users to communicate with one another using instant messaging (IM) and "microblogging," threaded conversations using short messages (as on Twitter). Users track communications and other activity from people and topics of interest on automatically compiled "newsfeeds." They can "follow" other users or topics to receive automatic notifications about their activities on the newsfeed. (See the illustration "A Yammer Home Page".)

Inside organizations, Yammer and its competitors have proven useful as an alternative to other forms of communication, such as e-mail, SharePoint discussion groups, and IM. In particular, they have become popular for processes that require group communication, such as resolving support issues, gathering feedback on projects and documents, spreading effective sales tactics and other kinds of best practices, and conducting out-of-band discussion during Web conferences. Compared to e-mail and other alternatives, social networking offers a more convenient user interface for threaded discussions. It also offers more automated filtering, so a user can find and join discussions that are relevant and avoid discussions that aren't. Younger workers who use public social networking services heavily might also prefer enterprise social networking to the alternatives, simply because it feels more familiar. Finally, social networking could provide a better organized and less obtrusive channel than e-mail for delivering notifications from applications to users. For example, a content management application might use a social network to notify an author that a document has completed review, or a customer relationship management application might use one to notify an account manager of service calls by a major customer.

Yammer has been adopted by several large firms, including AMD, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ford Motor, Kroger, and LG Electronics. Yammer's capabilities and business model promote bottom-up adoption by individual workers and groups. Any user with an e-mail address in a specific Internet domain can register for free and set up a site for that domain; users who register e-mail addresses in the same domain will then automatically join the site. (Yammer claimed 8 million registered users as of June 2013.) Users can also create "external networks"—Yammer sites that include selected users from other e-mail domains—to enable collaboration with selected business partners or customers. The bottom-up adoption model resembles that of SharePoint itself, whose free edition (now called SharePoint Foundation) spawned many unmanaged installations set up by individual business units.

Bottom-up adoption can pose problems, as sites might leak corporate information or grow to become a management or cost burden. Organizations can purchase Yammer Enterprise service to take control of sites, enhancing security and management. For example, with Yammer Enterprise an organization can centrally add and remove users through directory synchronization, set password policies, and export content archives from sites for eDiscovery and backup purposes. However, Yammer Enterprise is still a multitenant cloud service, which limits the amount of control that an organization has over its data. Yammer does not offer on-premises software or dedicated hosting options.

Separate from SharePoint, but Integrated

Many organizations adopting Yammer already have SharePoint Server; in fact, questions about SharePoint were a frequent topic of discussion on some corporate Yammer sites. SharePoint Server has its own social networking features, but Yammer's social features are more extensive and work more like those of popular public social networking services, and Yammer offers many capabilities for free. Consequently, some customers adopted Yammer for social networking and kept SharePoint for other tasks, such as document sharing, group editing of Office documents, and Web-based access to corporate applications.

Yammer can integrate with SharePoint installations on-premises or online. Yammer Enterprise includes Web Parts for viewing and posting to Yammer sites within SharePoint and components for publishing links to SharePoint content in Yammer. Organizations can set up SharePoint to present Yammer search results alongside SharePoint results (a capability called federated search). Organizations can set up Yammer so that users who have logged on to SharePoint can access Yammer without another log-on (single sign-on). Yammer integration uses published APIs that also enable integration with other applications and services; integration components exist for Box.net, Dynamics CRM Online, NetSuite, Salesforce.com, SAP, Zendesk, and others.

Organizations can buy Yammer Enterprise stand-alone directly from the Yammer subsidiary for US$3 per user, per month. Microsoft customers with 250 users or more can buy Yammer Enterprise subscription licenses in Enterprise Agreements. Moreover, Yammer Enterprise is included free with Office 365 enterprise plans (E1, E2, E3, E4) purchased in an Enterprise Agreement.

SharePoint 2013 Social Features Catching Up

SharePoint's social networking capabilities have not stood still. In particular, SharePoint Server 2013, released Dec. 2012, delivers capabilities comparable to Yammer in many areas, and those capabilities will be coming to SharePoint Online customers during 2013.

Microblogging. With SharePoint 2013, users can conduct conversations with microblogging capabilities like Twitter or Yammer. They can conduct threaded conversations by replying to other users' posts and can tag people and topics mentioned in text (using the @ and # tags) to help target messages. These capabilities make SharePoint more suited for group conversations than past versions. With SharePoint 2010, users could post personal status update messages, which would appear in other users' newsfeeds, but they couldn't reply to specific messages or tag items in messages.

Following and privacy settings. SharePoint 2013 enables users to follow people, sites, documents, and topics and receive updates about their activities (for example, mention of a person in a discussion) on their newsfeeds, similar to Yammer. If permitted by their organizations, users can also specify which of their activities can be followed and visible to others. SharePoint 2010 enabled following of people and subscription to e-mail notifications about documents and other content, but the SharePoint 2013 mechanism will be more familiar, provides finer-grained privacy controls, and is less likely to clog users' e-mail inboxes.

Newsfeed improvements. SharePoint 2013 delivers a number of improvements to the newsfeed format; for example, it enables users to preview pictures and other types of content in-line on the newsfeed. SharePoint 2013, like earlier versions, provides a personal newsfeed for each user. However, it also provides "site newsfeeds" for team sites and other kinds of SharePoint sites, which compile updates of interest to all site members.

Communities. SharePoint 2013 includes an enhanced type of discussion site, called a Community, for resolving questions—a frequent use of Yammer. As on the Microsoft Answers forum which the company uses for support, Community users can ask questions, track status of questions, and mark replies as answers. Organizations can designate moderators, mark specific users as experts, and set up a point system to reward users who contribute responses. Communities can be stand-alone sites or embedded in other types of sites, such as team sites, and organizations can set up a Community Portal site to serve as a global index to all of its Community sites. Like Yammer, SharePoint Community sites can provide a more efficient way to draw in experts and pool their knowledge about problems, and more generally spread information about tactics that work in a specific discipline like sales.

Share command. SharePoint 2013 introduces a Share command similar to that of Facebook and Yammer. This enables a user to set permissions for a site or document so it is accessible to a target user or group, and send a link to that user or group in a single operation. The command could help users to discover new content and sites through sharing by colleagues. However, administrators can also disable the Share command to prevent unwanted leaks of information.

My Site split. SharePoint 2013 reorganizes how users access their personal newsfeeds and other social networking capabilities. SharePoint Server 2010 offered users a personal site called My Site, which combined social networking with document sharing tools and other tools. SharePoint 2013 breaks the My Site into two sites: a SkyDrive site for document sharing and a Newsfeed site for social networking, task management, and other functions. The new organization simplifies the user interface to social networking functions and provides more room for the expanded newsfeed.

Mobile newsfeed apps. Mobile client apps are available for accessing SharePoint 2013 newsfeeds from Windows Phone and Apple iOS devices. Capabilities vary by platform, but the apps enable users to see filtered views of their newsfeeds and read and reply to posts. A Windows Store app for Windows 8 and Windows RT is available for SharePoint Newsfeed as well as Yammer.

Roadmap: Yammer and SharePoint Social Integrate and Coexist

Microsoft plans to further integrate Yammer and SharePoint over the next year and continue enhancements to Yammer, which will make Yammer adoption more attractive. Microsoft will support SharePoint's existing built-in social networking capabilities, but it will probably not enhance them. Yammer and SharePoint social features will probably remain separate technologies for many years.

More SharePoint Integration into 2014

Yammer will get more integration with SharePoint through 2014, in several stages.

Yammer link in SharePoint Online, Yammer app and SharePoint 2013 integration. SharePoint Online customers can choose to replace the built-in Newsfeed link with a link to Yammer as of June 2013. The built-in feature remains the default, and exposing the link does not change Yammer or SharePoint Online capabilities or integration; it does help an organization steer its SharePoint Online users toward Yammer. Microsoft plans further integration steps in the third quarter of 2013. In particular, with a new SharePoint 2013 Yammer app, end users and administrators will be able to embed Yammer feeds in place of SharePoint social feeds in SharePoint Server 2013 and SharePoint Online. In connection with the app, Microsoft plans to update documentation for using Yammer in place of the SharePoint Server 2013 social networking; current documentation only covers SharePoint Server 2010 and 2007.

SharePoint Online single sign-on, embedding, and Office document editing. Starting in the third quarter of 2013, SharePoint Online users will be able to sign in to Yammer with their Office 365 credentials, rather than using separate Yammer credentials as they must today. Yammer Enterprise already enables single sign-on with SharePoint on-premises; the planned feature will offer similar advantages for SharePoint Online, enhancing security and simplifying user administration. Microsoft will also embed Yammer in the SharePoint Online user interface, making it more accessible to users. Yammer users will also be able to view and edit SharePoint Online documents from a browser using Office Web Apps, which could be convenient for groups using Yammer to discuss and coordinate edits on project documents. Microsoft expects single sign-on, user interface embedding, and Office Web Apps features will also pay off for SharePoint Server 2013 on-premises customers, although it has not said how it will deliver the improvements to them.

Search and further user interface integration. Sometime in 2014, Microsoft plans to enable SharePoint search of Yammer. With current technology, users can search SharePoint and Yammer separately and display the results side by side, but SharePoint cannot index Yammer or return combined results from both SharePoint and Yammer sources. Organizations will also be able to make Yammer the default for all social features in SharePoint. These capabilities will probably appear for SharePoint Online before they are available for SharePoint Server on-premises.

Yammer is also to receive improvements through 2014, including enhanced point-to-point messaging and e-mail integration, simpler sharing with external users, updated mobile apps, and localization into more languages.

Merger with SharePoint a Remote Possibility

Microsoft has not announced any plans to merge Yammer into SharePoint Server the way it has merged past acquisitions, such as FAST search and Groove document synchronization. Current trends suggest that Yammer and SharePoint will remain separate. Microsoft is systematically encouraging customers to move to subscription licensing and cloud services such as Office 365, in part by releasing new technologies (such as the Office iPhone client) exclusively for subscribers to cloud services. As a cloud-only subscription service, Yammer supports this strategy. Keeping Yammer in the cloud also helps Microsoft expand the Yammer user base through bottom-up adoption and helps the company update Yammer more quickly and gather customer feedback more efficiently, both of which will help keep up with cloud competitors such as Salesforce Chatter.

Even if Microsoft were to merge Yammer into SharePoint Server, it would probably take a long time to do so: it took more than four years and two major SharePoint versions to integrate FAST search into SharePoint, and Groove took more than seven years and three versions.

Yammer Recommended, but Trade-offs Apply

Microsoft recommends Yammer for enterprise social networking as of June 2013. It recommends SharePoint Server's built-in social features only for organizations that have deployed the product on-premises and want to keep their social data there. In general, Yammer appears to be the most "future proof" social networking technology from Microsoft. (See the chart "Enterprise Social Technologies and Prospects".) However, organizations that already have SharePoint Server on-premises face some difficult trade-offs when choosing a social networking technology from the company.

Yammer offers better social networking than SharePoint Server and can integrate with SharePoint installations. However, it poses all the security and management problems of multitenant cloud services. It also requires organizations to support the Yammer platform, an additional management cost, and Yammer Enterprise imposes additional licensing costs beyond what organizations have already paid for SharePoint Server.

SharePoint Server's built-in social networking is weaker than Yammer's, although the gap is less with SharePoint Server 2013. Furthermore, SharePoint Server's social networking is unlikely to improve over time. SharePoint Server does enable organizations to keep potentially sensitive social networking discussions on-premises. It requires minimal new infrastructure for organizations that have already deployed or are deploying a recent version of SharePoint Server, and few if any new licenses.

Hybrids and interim solutions are conceivable but likely difficult. For example, an organization could adopt a hybrid system, using Yammer for some purposes and SharePoint social networking for others. However, the social networking components of the two products have substantially different user interfaces and offer no solution for synchronizing discussions and other social data between them, so the hybrid system would likely be difficult to use, impose more support costs, and negate the communications benefits of having all users in a single system. An organization might adopt SharePoint Server social networking in the interim while planning to ultimately migrate to Yammer. However, Microsoft has not announced any plans for migrating data between SharePoint Server and Yammer, so it's not clear what migration will ultimately cost.

SharePoint Online's social networking offers no technical advantages over social networking in SharePoint Server. However, licensing SharePoint Online with Office 365 in an Enterprise Agreement enables customers to essentially purchase an option on any of Microsoft's social technologies. In particular, an Office 365 E-plan purchased in an Enterprise Agreement grants subscription rights to Yammer, SharePoint Online, and SharePoint Server on-premises, permitting an organization to deploy any combination of the three.

Requirements and Resources

Yammer and its browser interface work with recent Web browsers on both PCs and Macs. It also offers a desktop client application for Windows PCs and Macs, as well as mobile apps for Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft Windows Phone, and BlackBerry devices; these client applications offer various subsets of Yammer capabilities and are particularly useful for receiving notifications of new content. Yammer's SharePoint integration features currently require SharePoint 2010 or 2007, although 2013 integration is likely to be available soon.

SharePoint social networking features require the full SharePoint Server product or SharePoint Online (any plan); they are not available with the free SharePoint Foundation. The SharePoint browser interface works with most PC browsers, although some features require Internet Explorer. SharePoint also offers a mobile browser interface that works with Apple iOS 5.x, Google Android 4.x, and Windows Phone 7.5. SharePoint Server 2013 on-premises requires Windows Server 2012 or 2008 R2 SP1 and SQL Server 2012 SP1 or SQL Server 2008 R2 SP1.

Microsoft's plans for Yammer and SharePoint are discussed at blogs.office.com/b/sharepoint/archive/2013/06/24/advancing-the-enterprise-social-roadmap-june-2013.aspx and blogs.office.com/b/sharepoint/archive/2013/03/19/yammer-and-sharepoint-enterprise-social-roadmap-update.aspx.

Microsoft's internal use of Yammer and SharePoint and its business case for social networking are outlined at www.microsoft.com/enterprise/office-of-the-CIO/articles/Making-Microsoft-a-Connected-Enterprise-with-Yammer-and-SharePoint.aspx.

An overview of SharePoint Server 2013 social networking features is at technet.microsoft.com/library/jj219766.

A glossary of SharePoint social networking terms is at technet.microsoft.com/library/jj219804.aspx.

System requirements and other planning information for SharePoint Server 2013 are at technet.microsoft.com/library/cc261834.

Yammer is at www.yammer.com.