In the late 1980s, Fortune magazine ran an article headlined, "Software catches the team spirit". It pictured a real estate agent using a "computer terminal" to open building plans from a CD, then sharing those plans and a "video tour" with a client in another time-zone. Thanks to the ability to share information, he makes the sale.
The "long awaited payoff from office automation" was coming, Fortune announced. Groupware, as collaboration software was then known, was to be “an electronic sinew that binds teams together… across barriers of space and time”.
It has taken its time, but two decades later the market for collaboration software is large and diverse. One product looms large, however: Microsoft’s SharePoint, which is reportedly used in some capacity by 78% of Fortune 500 companies.
Undeterred by Microsoft’s track record of dominating software markets, one UK tech start-up is placing itself in direct competition with SharePoint with its own web-based team collaboration application.
That company is called Huddle. A four-year-old operation currently bursting at the seams in an office with no air-conditioning in South London, Huddle’s current marketing strategy is aimed directly at displacing SharePoint.
This is no trivial task, as founder and CEO Alastair Mitchell readily admits. Microsoft’s collaboration software usually comes bundled in a stack of other titles, giving it an instant foothold with companies around the world. And while Microsoft has $50 billion in cash reserves, Huddle has received $14.2 million in funding.
The company’s current line of attack includes competing on price. "We can confidently say that average total cost of ownership (TCO) of implementing SharePoint on premise is £85 per person per month,” says Mitchell. “With Huddle, the same service is £10."
He says that this reduced TCO comes in part from a reduced IT management overhead, especially Huddle is used for collaboration with external third parties. “If you have 400 external users, [with Sharepoint] a company’s IT support desk has to be able to handle queries from all 400 when they lose their password, when they call from Japan, when they speak different languages,” he says. By automating much of this work, Huddle reduces the IT department’s workload, he claims.
Microsoft disputes Huddle’s claims, however, saying that a fairer comparison would be with the online version of SharePoint. "Taking a direct per user cost view of Huddle versus SharePoint Online, SharePoint comes out favourably at nearly a third of the cost – approximately £3.50 per user per month versus £10 per user per month with Huddle," the company told Information Age.
Another point of differentiation is adoption. Low adoption has blighted many collaboration software implementations in the past, as users fail to find the software as useful or as usable as its creators had claimed.
Huddle guarantees that companies will see 100% user adoption (where ‘user’ and ‘adoption’ are clearly defined in the contract with a client) of the product within three months of implementation, or they will get their money back for those months.
The company’s ambition is evident. Having outgrown its South London headquarters, the company is soon moving to a new office near ‘Silicon Roundabout’, perhaps to identify itself as one of the UK tech industry’s hopefuls.
Its ambition received a boost from the UK government in April 2011 when, in its own words, it became the first “cloud supplier to recognise government as a single ICT customer”. This means all government bodies, from central departments to NHS agencies, are approved to adopt the system.
But as it has grown, Huddle has had to come to terms with some realities of mainstream business computing. Customer demand for interoperability means its has had to develop plug-ins that integrate the product with Microsoft Office and, ironically, SharePoint.