Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Social Software, Cynapse, and Open Platforms

What's a Social Software?

These days, most of white collar workers have to deal with computers on a daily basis. Computers are everywhere: from the front desk to allow receptionists to get to the company directory up to garage doors checking who's in, who's out. There are so different types of computers that some of them go unnoticed!

The scope of this post is limited computers used to collaborate:
  • Make appointments
  • Produce documents
  • Review & comment documents
  • Forward documents
  • Poll users
  • Manage tasks
When it's time to collaborate, the vast majority of computer users rely on e-mails. E-mail is probably the most essential tool now, and without e-mails, many are lost. Do you remember the BlackBerry syndrome of the RIM product early adopters? Yeah, the one that wakes up people middle of the night so they can get new e-mails ;)

With tools like Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCal, and Google Calendar, more users relying on calendar tools to organize their time. This is neat because with such tools you can sometimes see up front if the targeted time slot is good for other attendees. And when attendance confirmation comes, the meeting information are updated automatically without requiring a specific triage in the mailbox.

When people have to share pictures, because the ones modern digital camera can generate are so big and very few people have the knowledge to reduce their size nicely, more and more people resort to online hosting services like flickr or Picasa. In addition to process  images to transit on the Web (while still available in high resolution for printing purposes), sharing pictures via links is way lighter for the mail system. It has also the additional benefit that pictures can be removed safely without one someone else to purge his/her mailbox.

With review sites like cnet or, more and more users have started to give their opinions online to share the joy of being a owner of a wonderful gadget, or to inform others that such a gadget is crap! Involving readers and customers to share their experiences is the key element of the social software movement.

So what's the relation between Cynapse and social software:
  • Cynapse is a central place where people can collaborate online with the most practical tools without relying on e-mails, a place where collaboration and communication do not loose their context.
Why Cynapse?

When my partner Steven and I started to work on the !twetailer, we knew that we wanted to collaborate online, within a reliable and protected environment that could handle many document types: user stories, specifications, diagrams, mock ups, pictures, bookmarks, discussions, etc.

As IBM-ers, we looked among the tremendous IBM products and we selected Lotus GreenHouse which was still in beta. The main flaw we experienced was its disruptive slowness. Another issue to us was our quasi-impossibility to influence the development path to fix the painful issues. Just 2 guys in a big user community have a very little impact...

We then decided to switch to Elgg, a free and open source software, that our hosting service offered. Elgg is probably a good tool but it did not match our needs. The variety of entities was limited as our ability to fix the issues. Probably, it would have been better to host the service at home and to extend its model. Because it would have distracted us from our project, we looked for a better solution.

At this time, Steven was studying the social software offering and Cynapse came out as a good fit to us:
  • The service out-of-the-box was promising and was still under active development.
  • They had an affordable offer: free self hosted service, managed service for a small subscription, managed hardware also for a fee.
  • They had an active user community which was hosted on the tool itself (the “eat your own dog food” principle).
  • Whatever solution we choose, we are free to upgrade/downgrade/exit.

Cynapse is an Indian company and its managers are really great. For practical reasons, we decided to go with the managed service online. When Steven contacted them, asking for a rebate in exchange to us blogging about our experience with the tool and us feeding them with enhancement requests from the development point of view, they accepted and sustained our involvement.

Disclosure: Because the tool and the team is great, Milstein & associates is now a business partner and can resell and offer services on the top of the tool.

After one full year and two upgrades, we are very happy with the tool and its support. At one point, we have developed an offer for schools available at which has been extremely well adapted by the kids!

In addition to the collaboration aspect, Cynapse with its offering of various tools in one platform allows users to develop their online reputation in a controlled environment. As Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist, mentions in a blog post:
People use social networking tools to figure out who they can trust and rely on for decision making. By the end of this decade, power and influence will shift largely to those people with the best reputations and trust networks, from people with money and nominal power. That is, peer networks will confer legitimacy on people emerging from the grassroots.
The Cynapse environment allows users to highlight their work: statistics about contributions and comments are shared on the main page, readers can note the published materials, etc. When people are new to social software, Cynapse offers a simple way to identify the people others “trust” and allows good contributors to build their reputation.

Aside our work on the !twetailer project, because the tool fits our needs, because kids adopted very well, we have proposed it to traditional companies (the ones that relies on Microsoft Outlook and shared folders for their collaboration). For now, the feedback is positive but it's too early to advance any adoption rate ;)

Why Open Platforms?

As a developer, I'm an heavy user of open source software (development environment, source control, build system, etc.). I am also a contributor myself with two open libraries hosted on github:
  • A set of utilities for Web application developers (Java, Python, JavaScript) which offers:
    • Globalization features: from one set of central repositories (TMX format) to programming language dependent resource bundles;
    • JSON related objects: to ease the parsing/generation of JSON structure
  • An adaptation of the Amazon Flexible Payment Service (FPS) library for the Java environment of Google App Engine.
And the content of this blog is offered under the Common Creative Licence By-NC-SA, which allows using beyond the traditional “fair-use” as long as you cite the source ;) I very like open platform for the reasons Larry Lessig gave in speech on . Open source is good for innovation for geeks like myself. For enterprises, I would argue that the key point is the data access: at anytime, someone can get the data out of an open source project without risking any patent infringement, without risky reverse-engineering. For sure, it won't be free as in “free beer” but they'll be free to get their data back. Some people will argue that close software often offer a way to export data in a standard format (like a SQL dump for a database) and allow then to import them somewhere else, but that's only true if no feature are dropped during the export and if all features from one can be activated in two during the import.

To summarize my point, I would say that open source software allow anyone to exit at anytime while continuing to control the data.

As a collaboration tool, Cynapse is maybe not the best one but it offers competitive advantages for the right price (for free if you have the team and expertise to manage it, for fee if you choose the hassle-free solution of the hosted service on Amazon AWS) while letting users migrating to another platform anytime.

Important point to consider during the selection of an open source solution: the quality of its community. More active is the community, better are your chances that issues you are facing have been documented, better your chances to see your (excellent) enhancement requests supported by others. Being able to contribute to an active community (by submitting bug reports, by answering others' questions, by submitting patches) have also the side benefit of improving your reputation.

A+, Dom


  1. Online collaborating and teaching can work, If you have trust and the right tools.
    I recently tried - good app for uploading documents and working on them in real-time.
    Most file types are supported and it needs no installation. - andy

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the pointer ;)

    About the real-time collaboration: the same day I wrote this post about, which I called the Cynapse tool, the Indian team launched, a Word processor with the real-time collaboration.

    In the Cynapse forum, many community members asked about the integration & and Cynapse people responded that they have integration plans. Cool!

    A+, Dom

  3. Great to know the -- in depth from this blog.This will really help for my forward steps to be taken.