Breakfast with Twitter

Collabor8 Steve Ballmer’s reported meeting on Thursday with Twitter counterpart Dick Costolo at the St. Regis hotel was most likely designed to send a message: Microsoft is serious about the stream. Whether the discussion was a buyout (now relevant in the absence of the Groupon acquisition) or just more partnering a la Microsoft’s early investment in Facebook, one thing is sure. Microsoft wanted this meeting leaked.

It would be trivial to stage this get together somewhere less visible. Microsoft owns a Silicon Valley campus, a San Francisco office, and any number of GameStops which could have traded a back room for just one crate of Xbox Kinects. But Ballmer wanted to send a direct message, and my bet is to Marc Benioff, who at that moment was doing a customer Q&A with salesforce.com co-founder Parker Harris two blocks away at Moscone South.

For all the power and money Ballmer commands at Microsoft, he faces a serious vulnerability at the heart of his Windows/Office stack. In a word: Outlook. If Outlook goes, Office goes. If Office goes, who needs Windows? If Windows goes, something replaces it. Whether it’s Chrome OS or iOS or even Android, that something would be a big big deal. Most likely, it will be all of the above, with a communications layer loosely coupling them together under a stream of micromessages.

Ballmer’s message to Benioff is this: We understand you have defined the next generation OS with realtime at its center. We understand your success at empowering businesses with these services in a way that undermines our document-centric model. We understand you have unleashed the power of individual contributors, something we have failed to do repeatedly as evidenced by the departure of Ray Ozzie. We will spend what we need to spend to reassemble what you have done.

After Benioff’s Q&A, he drove down to an interview with Forbes’ Victoria Barret on stage at a GigaOm event about the changing nature of work. Benioff’s message: things have changed, and we need to embrace the new spirit, the flattening of the organization, the rise of the individual contributor, the power of an organic messaging system that permeates both the people and the processes of their companies and broader lives. It’s an exhilarating message, one that harnesses the horses of innovation, creativity, and even the spirit of the underdog.

In the months since Chatter went live, companies have experienced what we did as we consumed our own dog food. As Benioff told Barret, we reworked a management offsite into a combination of conference and community. Salesforce employees tuned in to a live video stream from offices and desktops while executives, individual contributors and media stars such as David Kirkpatrick and Nicholas Carr, and an ad hoc band of Chatter power users dubbed the Chatterati built a living, breathing template for what the company was and will be doing.

We didn’t broadcast everything, just the key sessions that would accelerate this message of change, but once the people in the room felt comfortable with the Chatter stream, they kept the flow going on Chatter until the video attendees rejoined the stream. When Benioff hired Web theorist and chief scientist JP Rangaswami a few months later, he sent Rangaswami to the video and Chatter archives to get up to speed. By the time of this week’s Dreamforce 2010, some 60,000 salesforce customers were using Chatter and downloading apps for the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone from Apple’s AppStore, with a custom Dreamforce Chatter app also available on iOS and Android devices for attendees.

Microsoft doesn’t need an oracle to tell them this is bad news, like the speed with which Dell went from a sales team implementation of Chatter to company-wide adoption of over 115 thousand when Michael Dell realized how transformative the platform is for his company. Wall Street is making ugly noises about Redmond’s lack of a tablet strategy, and throwing money after Windows Phone 7 hasn’t worked out very well. Only the Xbox Kinect hardware speaks to any momentum at all, and teaming up with Twitter won’t do much more than confuse Facebook.

Meanwhile, every time one of those 60,000 customers experiences an Exchange outage, they quickly reroute over to the Chatter channels. Strategic groups pop up as events and opportunities warrant, individual contributors, managers, and people from teams across the enterprise jump in (via Chatter Free that launched over the weekend), and the archives swell with the institutional lifeblood and memory of the company. Once Exchange resumes, email has to share its diminishing clout with the new collaboration bus.

Microsoft has tried various tactics to splice micromessaging into Outlook. But the more they hype connectivity with Outlook and Office, the more they run away from the social layer and the speed with which Chatter harnesses the organic power and potential it encourages and draws from its users. Building authority, drawing on hidden assets, identifying talent, spreading effective collaboration across last-generation silos, and unifying hierarchical and flattened processes — these represent incentives that reduce attrition, expand productivity, and produce metrics that lead to more compensation and opportunity.

I’m sure Steve Ballmer picked up the check for breakfast with Twitter. I’m less sure Twitter is for sale to Microsoft, or anybody for that matter. For one, the Twitter clients and apps are already more useful for realtime triage than Outlook. For another, Microsoft loses more blood every time they have to compete with iOS and Android machines, where Outlook and Office either don’t exist or are being sucked into Apple or Google formats. If they produce iOS apps, they lose; if they don’t, they lose more.

Most importantly, there is an observable quality in a Chatterized discussion that is seldom seen in either email or static blog posts. Not only do @mentions function more effectively point to point than email cc's, but they draw in contributions from unanticipated sources. The analysis of Dreamforce by analysts who joined the Dreamforce Chatter app suggests a comfort level and insight into the technology’s impact not evident previously. It’s like lacing the dog food with filet mignon. Once they get a taste of it, they’ll never go back.

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