Community Server Letdown

Over the past couple weeks, I've been playing around with Beta 3 of Telligent Systems open-source "collaboration and knowledge management platform", Community Server, and quite frankly I'm a little disappointed.  Community Server is not so much a v1.0 product as it is a combination of vN.N (where N.N is the latest version) of the 3 products that comprise its application architecture (CS::Forums, CS::Blogs, and CS::Gallery).

Because this open-source project has been cooking for some time now, I expected to see a lot more integration between the three applications.  Right now, Community Server just looks more like 3 applications bundled together in a single install rather than one unified collaborative, knowledge management platform.  Rather than pushing Community Server in its current form, I think it would have been more beneficial to simply improve upon the 3 respective apps first (e.g. fix bugs, add enhancments, etc) and then plot out a solid roadmap for integrating the applications. 

No disrespect to CS::Forums or CS::Gallery, but perhaps the most critical and hence most important piece of this solution is CS::Blogs (a.k.a. .Text) Why? Because this application is perhaps one of the hottest open-source solutions on the internet and is used by number of large community sites as well as individuals.  New blogs are springing up everyday and 9 times out of 10 its using some build of .Text.  Community websites are being introduced almost monthly and simply serve as a "wrapper" around the .Text engine.

My "vision" for Community Server would consist of more deep integration between Forums, Blogs, and Gallery to the extent where each respective application is "transparent" to the end-user.  For example, look at CS::Blogs and CS::Gallery and compare it to MSN Spaces.  One of the cool aspects of MSN Spaces is the synergy between the concept of the blog and the concept of the photo gallery.  The photo gallery is simply a "component" that is made available on the blog and is accessible at anytime without performing additional clicks resulting in a totally different user interface (as evident in the Community Server beta).  For those of you out there who are familiar with SharePoint Portal Server 2003, there is a concept of a "My Site".  In a nutshell, the "My Site" represents a "mini-portal" which serves as the end-users personal workspace for sharing content, fostering community collaboration, and a whole host of other possibilities.  MSN Spaces makes an attempt to bring that concept to a much larger audience.  Community Server, in my opinion, could extend this concept even further through the introduction of "CommunityServer Sites" where each registered user would essentially have their own "mini-portal" which could contain their blog content, their photo gallery, links to favorite websites or the Community Server site of a friend, colleague, or industry figure and basically have that all encapsulated in a single uniform UI.

Imagine this: Through this type of architecture, as a part of a user's Community Server Site, he/she could have an "aggregator-like" component that allows him/her to read and post comments on their favorite blogs without having to fire up a separate application to view RSS feeds.  Now this aggregator component would only be displayed in the "private view" of the registered user's Community Server site.  The private view of a CommunityServer site would be accessible once a user has logged in.  A user would only be able to see their own private site, however, they would have the freedom to browse the "public view" of any user's Community Server site.

To take this concept one step further.  On a public view of a user's Community Server Site, he/she can have a component that displays their favorite forums (this is where the integration of CS::Forums could come into play).  All of this architecture, however, is completely transparent to the user in that they would see the site as one continuous application which promotes a more consistent user experience.

Also imagine this: As a part of the architecture, the appropriate hooks can be built in to integrate either the parent Community Server platform, or the individual Community Server site into your favorite Office application for example.  Let's say someone writing a design document on some complex application architecture, and they want to collaborate on application design best practices with other folks who may potentially have designed and/or built something similar.  Well through some "add-in" into Microsoft Word, one could have the ability to either post or create a new forum and discuss this document.  This type of concept is what makes Windows SharePoint Services so compelling within the enterprise.

Now I'm not writing this post to glorify the Microsoft products that mark our entry into the collaboration and knowledge management space, however, I do want to bring attention to solutions such as these as well as those provided by other vendors to motivate those who participate in open source initiatives to try and improve upon these solutions' weaknesses and extend their strengths in new and innovative ways.  One could also make the argument “Well, Lamont, they are not trying to compete with Microsoft, but rather provide an alternative where the community can contribute.“  I totally respect that point without question, however, this goes beyond products and companies, and is solely focused on adding value to the community.  For those in the community who may not be strong .NET developers and could tailor the solution to their liking, we must be mindful that there will be those out there who will opt for the “out-of-the-box“ experience.  Therefore, why not make the “out-of-the-box“ experience the best it possibly can be?  To me, this in itself would foster more interest in the project and foster more innovation and contribution to the overall success of the solution.  I'm not going to speak for the folks at Telligent Systems, but I would be so bold to say that they want to deliver something to the community-at-large that adds value.  Especially, if at some point they'd like to turn a profit with Community Server.

Now let me say, that I commend Rob, Scott, Jason , and others for their efforts in trying to bring this type of solution to the community without the overhead that accompanies a shrink-wrapped product, however, I've seen efforts like this in the past, and have even participated in a few myself, and through my personal observations, they really didn't add the value that it could have.

Just a little food for thought.

What you do guys think?

– Lamont

NOTE: This blog post was moved from its previous location on dotnetjunkies.com/weblog/lamont_harrington. It was posted in January 2005

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