Piggy-backing on social software

While our attention has been diverted by the razzle dazzle of the social software startups, traditional software companies have been quietly getting on with updating their own products. In the past month or so, I’ve been to four briefings with established organisations, each of which has presented me with demonstrations of their updated legacy software which, on the face of it, look just like the work of the startups.

All the jargon is there too – network effects, long tail, social networking, wisdom of crowds, comments, tags, rankings – you name it, they’re saying it. And, to be frank, I found it quite offensive at first. As someone who spent several years participating in the emergence of social computing, I thought that they were cloaking themselves in the regalia of this new world in order to pretend that they are still in the game. I was wrong about their motivations, of course.

It took a while for the penny to drop. It wasn’t until the fourth presentation that I realised that the imitation was not simple flattery, or even a desperation to appear relevant. They really had twigged that this new stuff had a viable place in their world. They had found ways of making the old stuff easier to use on the one hand and more powerful on the other. Two of the announcements are still under the radar, so forgive me for not naming names. Suffice it to say that in all cases the benefits derive from social things like collaboration, collective insights and sharing. And not-so-social things such as monitoring the activities of individuals.

A social software startup is unlikely to get anywhere close to developing the sort of enterprise software that drives our businesses. Some will survive and mature and maybe even merge their way to prominence. Others may simply have their moment in the sun, then fade away. But their legacies are there for us all to benefit from. They’re a sort of living research laboratory for the IT industry.

Companies which have spent years building and evolving substantial software products that deliver real value are right not to be too disturbed by these new developments. But they are absolutely right to consider what’s good about their own offerings, what’s good about the new stuff and then graft one to the other, as appropriate. Just because something is labelled ’legacy’ doesn’t render it irrelevant. Quite the reverse in fact.

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