Note: This is a paid product review.
The SharePoint 2010 social story has a lot of gaps. That has been well understood as Microsoft has scrambled to fill in gaps, and a number of partners have built solutions to address these gaps. Attini has looked at these gaps and built solutions that fit completely within SharePoint and take advantage of the power that's already there.
SharePoint status in 2010 really missed the mark. Users would post a status, and there was no good way of interacting with it. Also, as soon as they would update it a second time, there would be no history. As a result, status in SharePoint was quickly abandoned and not seen as a viable way to communicate. Attini Talk, one of Attini's more popular products provides a rich microblogging solution similar to Facebook or Twitter. As an alternative to Yammer, it provides microblogging on-premise with no need to store your data outside the corporate firewall. Other products in the Attini Suite offer point solutions for building real applications that the enterprise needs.
Every intranet I've seen has news and often has blogs. What keeps them from getting off the ground is the governance they require and finding that common solution among the communications folks in each department. Attini News offers the ability to allow departments to do their own news in their own departmental site, in a news template already configured with tagging and a rich display. A news hub rolls up relevant news with targeting and rollups from all locations using the news templates. The more you dig in the more you see how configurable these solutions are and keep you from having to do server side development. In this review I'll explore the gaps and solution, and share what changes in SharePoint 2013 will or won't have an impact to the solution.
Figure 1: Attini Talk (Right) with Attini News (Left) Making an Intranet Look Easy
Understanding Challenges Today
Many purchase SharePoint without realizing that only the easy part is done. Using SharePoint out of the box as a solution for your intranet may sound like a good strategy, but it has its limits. Some of the more common things that need to be built or purchased evolve around gaps in the product. In demos you get from Microsoft these are often glossed over, as the demos have been built and designed to make it seem easy or requiring no customization. The reality is that nearly all SharePoint environments will require some customization or third party products to overcome gaps in the product.
What are some of these common gaps when building an Intranet?
- Roll-ups and Aggregation – Across sites it is challenging at best, to pull together content from similar sites. Take news for example. If you create a custom list with the attributes you want your news to take, on a number of department sites, it isn't trivial to tie these lists together, and it definitely isn't dynamic or very fast on performance.
- Lack of Rich Microblog – We've already discussed many of the shortcomings in the difference between SharePoint status, which doesn't have history, replies, mentions, tags, and so many other things. SharePoint 2010 status is really a first stab at having social status, but misses the mark for those looking for Facebook- and Twitter-like communication or newsfeeds, and activity feeds.
- Popularity and What's New – In SharePoint 2010 it is very difficult to tell what's new on a site or even new in a list. There are some lists where you can get a little 'new' image next to an item, but you can't exclusively access a list of new items or tell what's popular.
- Likes and Comments – Today in SharePoint 2010 there are very few lists and items that have the ability to be liked or commented on. The blog has comments, but these are stored in a separate list. News doesn't have likes or comments and neither have a good rollup to display how many comments, views or likes any given article has received. The likes in 2010 are for pages and are displayed in tags and notes, which isn't intuitive for the users.
- Display – Even if you get aggregation, it's very challenging to get it to look good. The coding and layouts are very challenging. If it's one time, then you may be able to fight through it, but when you need to add new lists and add metadata from other lists, it gets really complicated really fast.
Figure 2: Attini News Home
Attini News brings in real business value by focusing on things that otherwise are hard for developers. It's what users are used to seeing in their consumer world and really what communications and business folks are looking for.
- Recent news tells you how recent the news actually is.
- Number of comments and number of views and likes is displayed with the content. As well, this data is used to provide web parts that thrill users such as most viewed, most discussed or most liked or all three. Each of these web parts is configurable.
- The small thumbnails used, based on the display, makes it look good whether it's in a small view or on the article itself.
- Content can easily be gathered and displayed, based on tags.
- The real value is in the power of what's happening behind the scenes… you can aggregate from anywhere and then display it anywhere.
Figure 3: Attini Blog Enhanced with Rich Statistics, Likes, and Comment Feedback
Why don't people use SharePoint blogs? Is it because the interface for posting isn't easy? Maybe. Is it because people don't like using SharePoint? Well, the main reason is because it's hard for the person who is blogging to tell if it's being used. By default, if no one has used the comments, there is not a lot of feedback. In a corporate environment, you may have a hundred people look at something and still not comment. By default, you don't have 'Like' functionality, and you can't easily tell if it's been viewed. You also can't tell if anyone is subscribing to your RSS feed. While a blog does have site collection usage statistics, it is a bit tricky and you still can't easily tell what posts are popular. Also, it's not immediate feedback.
Attini makes all of these things accessible and easy to read. By simply tapping into the analytics and displaying it where all can see, it can show what the most popular posts are, and provide feedback, like number of comments and number of views right in a web part on the blog. Beyond that, it can aggregate the best of the blogs, to where more can discover what's going on in blog aggregation similar to news. Aggregate your news, blogs, and videos with the Attini suite of products. Choose which ones you need. What's nice as well, is people can set up the permissions the way they want and they will automatically be trimmed out of the aggregation.
My Experience with Attini
I've spent a lot of time and money with the communications department. They have been frustrated with the out-of-the-box news templates and forms. The little interactivity they get hasn't been enough. We ended up developing a custom comments engine and also adding 'Likes' to the articles. The out-of-the-box like function wasn't enough. At the time, we even looked into using the Yammer 'Like' button, but it wasn't ready and too few people were using Yammer to get the value we needed out of the button.
While we essentially spent the time and money to build custom UI very similar to Attini, we could easily have taken advantage of the Recent News aggregator web part. We were looking to target news, based on department and ended up creating a lot of extra sites for each department, but found this could have easily been accomplished through tags. There is always a "buy verses build" choice when it comes to this type of functionality.
I've been very anxious to start using SharePoint 2013, and I was curious where I'd land on this debate of "buy verses build" as it relates to the new functionality. I was super impressed with the tablet-based news interface Daniel McPherson showed me. This combined what I was looking for in a trustworthy and practical use, taking what was happening on the intranet and delivering it to the device on which the executives were looking for support. This might just be the thing that would help bridge the gap, proving that our team could deliver on devices beyond IE and the PC.
While some of this is still in development, it definitely helped me gain confidence that Attini is going to continue to deliver well into SharePoint 2013 and beyond.
So, What's the Downside?
Social is a crowded space, and Microsoft has made it complicated. First, you have the new features and functionality of SharePoint 2013, and then you have Yammer and the product team saying it will power social in the future. All we've seen so far are features in the cloud from Yammer. Impressive nonetheless and a leader in the space, but in practical on-premise use in SharePoint 2010 and going beyond the microblog, you'll see a lot of gaps as mentioned in this article. SharePoint 2013 brings with it a lot of confusion in the social space. Gaps continue to exist and you don't have to look far to see that News, Video, and Blogs continue to fall short. I haven't had time to explore all of those gaps in this write-up, but before building, you might want to check in with the Attini guys and see what's on their roadmap.
SharePoint 2013 has a lot of cool new features around popularity, search, and these should not be overlooked, but neither should the gaps. Development will continue to exist if you want to get print quality views, and if you want your news pages to look like they do on your favorite websites. Attini has done a good job of bridging these gaps.
In my experience, Attini is a company that wants to work with you and they are flexible in that way. Often if you give them feedback, they'll ask you how much it's worth to you. They may just build it for you. They definitely listen.
Other gaps are a clear roadmap from Microsoft. Attini has definitely been beat up by silence and lack of clear direction, but if you know what you want you should be pleased. I recommend conversations. I think you'll find them more flexible than most.
Attini talk is an awesome microblog for SharePoint 2010, and it isn't for 2013. Microsoft has left gaps in blogs, news, and video around aggregation and targeting with popularity and like integration that you'd expect would be in the box, but isn't.
Before you start developing your own news, blog or start figuring out your video center, you should check out the latest products and demos from Attini at http://www.attini.com/products. I'm sure they'd love to hear from you.
This product review is an unbiased review and service by Joel Oleson. How did I do?