Recently in San Francisco, Facebook held its "f8" conference for its developers, media and other interested parties. Facebook now has over 400 million users and has grown from a web site to a platform for delivering software and services. Right now, you may be thinking Farmville, the world's most popular collaborative online game that has a reported 80 million virtual farmers. At this conference however, Facebook and Microsoft announced a partnership to allow sharing of your Microsoft Office documents with your friends through Facebook called Docs.com. Vacation photos, restaurant recommendations, birthday wishes are all things you would share in real life with your friends and family that you can now do through Facebook. But I rarely find myself bringing around a contract, spreadsheet or presentation to the old neighborhood barbecue or Thanksgiving dinner. So, what good is it then, right? Let's plow a little deeper.
Here is a hereto for little known fact about me. I am a "Two Face". This is a term I came up with (surely along with someone much smarter and earlier than I did) to describe people who keep two Facebook accounts, one for personal and one for business. I do this for a few reasons. There are things that I share with friends and family that I don't necessarily want to share with colleagues or business associates. Conversely, my friends and family don't really want to hear me "speak the geek" on legal technology but Facebook can also be a good business networking tool if used correctly. What if Facebook came up with a way for me to create different groups of Facebook friends that I could publish different content to?. That is essentially a very basic form of provisioning or assigning rights and privileges. Privacy settings can limit what certain people see but it will not say Picture A goes to Group C and Article B goes to Group D. It also does not create a digital firewall around the content of a group of people, say for instance, your firm staff. I have a theory that we will see more robust provisioning through Facebook itself and through Facebook Connect, soon to be known as simply, the Facebook Platform.
Google Docs and Google Apps do accomplish these things already and that is why I think this is such an important announcement. While there is some adoption of the Google platform, people do not generally know how to share a document on Google Docs and if they do, they are not sure what email address to send it to or how to set permissions or if that person or group can then pass it on. There is also the misnomer that the document needs to be generated in Google Docs. There are third party tools like OffiSync which allow you to send your Microsoft Office documents to your Google Docs or Google Apps account in its native format and not subject to any limitations of Google Docs formatting. You can also provision the document to say who can see it, who is read only, who can edit it, and who can share it with others. Google has also updated their online tools and given them richer functionality and better fidelity with Microsoft Office documents. So, it has become a very viable platform for collaboration and sharing. While firms that have adopted Google Apps in place of Microsoft Office and especially where they replace Outlook with the GMail interface have discovered the ease of collaboration and provisioning, this is a very minute part of the legal population. I found only two case studies by Google Apps consultants on law firms while doing some recent research.
This is where the opportunity lies for Facebook and Microsoft, in familiarity. Microsoft Office is basically know as an on-premise solution and it's software residing on your desktop and data on your firm's server. They are struggling to be known as a web alternative to well, themselves. The upcoming release (May 12th, 2010 for volume licenses, June 15, 2010 for others) of Office 2010 will start to close this gap with a free web version which has limited functionality and is ad-supported. However, where Microsoft has usually been adept at playing catch up, they simply were losing ground in a platform that Steve Ballmer said 'we are betting the company on'. Docs.com is but another small step, but they have gotten on the right bus and it is a popular one that goes out to the countryside.
Imagine a day on the horizon, just past the corn, where you sign into your firm's Facebook system which has a virtual fence around the data and content (for the sake of this discussion, let's assume that data privacy concerns have been resolved). You are notified that a Word document needs to be edited or approved. You click on the link and open it in Microsoft Word and start editing it and in real time people with rights can see you editing it and instant message you with suggestions which you agree on and eventually approve. You then hit the "share" button and select your client's Facebook account which notifies them of the document, which needs to be signed, through their personal Facebook account. Only they can see this notification and the document itself. They can then link to the document which still resides in your virtual perimeter and electronically sign the document. When it is signed, you are notified on your firm Facebook feed. This could also trigger a billing entry to your accounting system. Your client might actually pay you right there with Facebook Credits.
Actually, this little stretch of the imagination is available today on other platforms (OK, maybe not paying in virtual credits but payment via an interface like PayPal is). Microsoft's own Share Point can do all of this. The benefit of the scenario above is that you don't have to buy additional software or hardware. Google Apps along with several integrated third party apps can do this today as does the 37 Signals suite and a host of other products as well. However, using Microsoft Office with Facebook, very minimal training would be required and adoption would be almost guaranteed once your firm decided to implement it. Getting the industry to buy in; that'll be a tough row to hoe.
Should the above scenario actually come to be, you probably want to avoid the temptation to use your clients' trust credits to buy feed for your livestock.