Borrowing a Page from Facebook and Ning, BroadVision Bets the Company on the “Social Business Cloud”

Pehong Chen says he got the idea for the future of BroadVision from his kids.

It was certainly clear, by 2007 or so, that BroadVision needed a new business. Founded in 1993, the Redwood City, CA-based software vendor built e-commerce applications and corporate portals during the first Internet boom. Chen, the founding CEO, took the startup public in 1996, saw its stock ascend into the stratosphere, and then watched it crash just as hard in 2000, beginning a long period of struggle and reexamination. “Our traditional business has been stagnant, not growing,” says Chen, who’s still at the helm at BroadVision (NASDAQ: BVSN). “The whole enterprise platform business has really matured and consolidated. Not a lot of people are building new things.”

But Chen’s children, like many people their age, are using quite a few new things—they’re big Facebook and Twitter users, for example. “I have noticed—and this was the catalyst of our whole strategy shift a few years back—that my kids, and people in their whole generation, respond better on these social platforms than they do with e-mail,” says Chen. “It always drives my wife crazy that she sends them e-mail but they don’t respond. But when she posts something on their wall, she gets an immediate response. It’s like our generation grew up linear, but their generation is a lot more circular, like they’re collaborating around a table.”

The more Chen thought about that, the more he became convinced that the “Enterprise 1.0” era, dominated by big, complex, centralized business applications, was ending. In the near future, he predicted, enterprise software platforms would be measured not by how many documents they can hold, but by how many employees (including the youngest ones) use them to share and collaborate.

So BroadVision threw out most of its existing code and spent two years building a new cloud-based suite of business services called Clearvale, which it formally unveiled in May. Now, after a six-month shakedown cruise, BroadVision is adding key features that bring Clearvale much closer to being a real “Facebook for the enterprise,” to quote chief marketing officer Giovanni Rodriquez. BroadVision announced today at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, CA, that Clearvale users can now build private clouds using their own hosted versions of Clearvale, and offer Clearvale-based services to their own customers. Japan’s Softbank Telecom, for example, plans to use the new Clearvale technology to provide premium communication and collaboration services to its landline subscribers. BroadVision is also introducing features that help Clearvale users start impromptu online communities and manage multiple information streams, including social media updates.

Plenty of companies, from upstarts like to data storage giants like EMC, are offering cloud-based document exchange software that’s been redrawn along the Facebook model. But BroadVision says it thinks Clearvale is the first platform that lets companies create branded public or private networks that can be used for internal collaboration, customer service, e-commerce, and other tasks. The “Clearvale communities” feature, for example, is similar to Facebook Groups, allowing any employee to create forums for information sharing and invite colleagues, partners, or customers to join. “It’s a network of networks, much like Ning,” says Rodriguez. “You have customers and partners and employees, and sometimes you want to stitch them all together and publish across them, and sometimes not.”

BroadVision will charge Clearvale customers according to the number of employees using it each month, which makes it an example of what analysts call a “platform as a service,” or PaaS. That gave the company a name for the new version of the product: Clearvale Paasport.

Chen calls the rollout of Paasport a bet-the-company moment—the kind of shift that was needed to jolt BroadVision out of its long torpor and attract new users. “We’re working very hard to migrate a lot of our existing customers to Clearvale, but aside from that there is a huge pipeline of new customers—people who are disenchanted with their existing Web infrastructure because it’s so centralized, with a total lack of agility, yet at a very high cost,” he says. “This new ecosystem allows you to do it by yourself and pay by usage.”

BroadVision has learned from experience that its old enterprise portal model “does not work very well any more for organizations, and also has its architectural limitations,” Chen says. While BroadVision applied its deep understanding of security, access control, document sharing, and other subjects to Clearvale, there’s not much of the company’s original software left in the new product, he says. “Our ‘Enterprise 1.0’ portal, and variations like Microsoft SharePoint and other traditional business applications, was designed for domain specialists. It’s just hard to use, generally speaking. It’s object- and document-centric as opposed to people-centric. But one thing we learned was that when you turn the coin around and make it very people-centric, there are all kinds of possibilities.”

One of those possibilities, Chen says, is giving employees the power to generate and share their own documents and media—user-generated content, in the lingo of social media. That “energizes what a few people can do in an organization and makes them feel psychologically and culturally that this is their activity as opposed to the company’s,” he says.

Another is the ability to help users manage the multiple streams of information coming at them during the business day. In addition to e-mail, of course, there’s voicemail, instant messages, RSS feeds, wikis, social media updates from Facebook and Twitter, and additional streams from business applications like “It’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with all that information,” says Rodriguez. “We in the enterprise software and social networking businesses have to some extent created this world, so it’s incumbent on us to fix it.”

BroadVision’s solution is a new Clearvale feature called MyStreams, which collects multiple data streams such as e-mail, voicemail, and social media updates on a single page customized for each user. But MyStreams doesn’t simply aggregate the information—it also filters it. “You can look at the data streams and dial them up and down depending on how much you want,” says Rodriguez.

Services like Gmail’s recently introduced Priority Inbox feature offer Web users similar control, but this technology hasn’t been available in a large corporate environment before, Rodriguez says. “It’s probably the first tool for enterprise social networks that allows businesses to integrate and filter the different data streams that exist for their workers.”

Of course, it can be tough to ask workers to learn yet another new interface—especially inside companies where e-mail is still king, and employees won’t necessarily be able to simply turn off existing tools like Microsoft’s Outlook. “It’s inevitable that when you have a new paradigm, you have to endure a period of transition,” Chen acknowledges. But BroadVision’s studies of Clearvale MyStreams beta users have shown that users adapt relatively quickly, he says, especially once they notice that their data streams are becoming less burdensome.

“We ask people whether they feel like they’ve been able to do more on Clearvale versus Outlook, and whether they think Clearvale could ever be their primary mode of communications and collaboration,” Chen says. “In the beginning, few people believe this will happen. But if you ask every two or three months, you see that ever so slowly people are moving up the ladder and believing that they don’t need to go into Outlook as much.”

Despite all of the similarities between Clearvale’s new tools and consumer Web services like Gmail and Facebook, there’s one thing missing—virality. Clearvale users can invite other people to join communities within the platform on a project-by-project basis, which will help with exposure and marketing. But it’s still the chief information officer who has to decide whether his or her company should adopt the platform.

That’s where the pay-per-use pricing model comes in. Clearvale customers only pay for users who actually sign in, and can increase or decrease the number of users on their plan as required. That should add to Clearvale’s attractions, Rodriguez says. “If you are a provider of cloud-based services, you should be required to provide pricing that better fits the realities of cloud economics,” he said in BroadVision’s product announcement today.

Chen, the 17-year veteran of the enterprise Web business, says he’s convinced that the bet the company made on more social and cloud-based platforms three years ago will start to pay off. “You don’t get to see the beginning of a brand-new paradigm that often,” he says. “In the thick of the Internet bubble, everybody was drunk and nobody knew where the future was going. Now all of us feel like it’s very clear.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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