What’s New in Connect 4.0?

Image by Banalities on Flickr used under Creative Commons (thx @jpiwowar)

Image by Banalities on Flickr used under Creative Commons (thx @jpiwowar)

As I mentioned last week, we’ve released the 4.0 version of Connect, which includes a boat-load of new stuff.

Our main goals for this release were:

  • Put the focus on people, not on objects.
  • Make it dead simple to share anything.
  • Aggregate information by supporting multiple sources.
  • Provide intelligent filtering for easy viewing.
  • Consolidate output of the information we aggregate.
  • Give groups a more independent experience.

These grew out of a few itches we wanted to scratch: aggregation, easy sharing, better groups. Plus, while they were at it, Rich and Anthony cleaned up the code, significantly re-architected the data model and stretched their UI legs a bit with some sweet AJAX goodness.

For those of you still reading who aren’t employees and can’t check it out for yourselves, Connect had been very similar to Mix in functionality if you need a baseline.

I’ll cover each of our goals in turn.

Put the focus on people, not on objects
New avatar-centric Activity LogWe set out to emphasize the human element of the network, i.e. focus on who contributes, not on what is contributed. Twitter proved the value of this model, and Facebook has gone the same route.

Now, you can scan the activity log and immediately recognize people you know, which in turn can help you find interesting content.

The theory is that as your network or group grows and as people contribute more to Connect, you no longer have time to process and review each and every item. By associating people with objects, you can scan and identify people you care about quickly. Of course, if you have time, you can find new people who interest you and then scan for their avatars.

As a bonus, we’re also hoping this approach encourages more people to upload avatars.

Make it dead simple to share anything
Rich built the posting widget as we’re calling it to make posting a snap. In the last version, you could only post your status on the home page and post ideas, questions and blog entries on the group pages.

The new posting widget

Now, you can share:

  • Your status.
  • A note. Notes are a catch-all for blog posts, messages, announcements, events, pretty much anything that’s not an idea or a question.
  • A link.
  • An idea. Since ideas have been part of Connect from the beginning, we have a soft spot for them.
  • A question. Questions have been around in Connect since 2.0.
  • Some media. Media provides a shortcut for posting videos, podcasts and images, just provide the link, and Connect does the rest.
  • Some code. We share a lot of code, and doing it through email is doin it rong.

The media post type is one of Rich’s whizzy features. For certain sites (YouTube, Vimeo, SlideShare, Google Video), it provides the viewer. For mp3 files, it provides a play, and for image files, it shows the image.

Media post, bling-tastic

Pretty slick, eh?

Aggregate information by supporting multiple sources
Bare-bones, but hey, it works.This is my pet project. There are so many systems internally and externally produce feeds, but so few people use feed readers that the value is lost. Plus, feed readers aren’t social; Google Reader is an exception, but we can’t view internal feeds in Reader.

We’ve borrowed FriendFeed’s import a feed capability and now you can pump all your feeds into a Connect group for collaborative discussion.

My hope is that people will use the feeds generated by blogs (in/outside the firewall), wikis, forums, news sites, other Connect groups, portals, enterprise search queries, etc. to aggregate useful content into a single place for discussion.

An unintentional feature is Connect as a web-based feed reader. Sure, it’s pretty bare-bones, but it does the job.

Provide intelligent filtering for easy viewing
Making it easy to share and aggregate information necessitated excellent filtering. People frequently asked for better filtering in the old Connect, and we knew this version would really need it.

The filter widget

Connect was already chock-full of information today, and more filters were a common ask. By adding more sources (like importing feeds) and more post types (media, code, links) and making it simpler to share posts (with the new share widget), we have made Connect much more dense with information. So, we have also made it easier to slice and dice your activity logs.

So, we now offer you three filters in a widget: Viewing (what post types), From (what time period) and Sorted by (how new or popular).

  • Viewing filters the log so you can view only post types that interest you: ideas, questions, links, media, code, notes, statuses (on the Home page) and feed items (in groups).
  • From filters by time, last 24 hours, last 7 days, last 30 days, last year.
  • Sorted by orders the log by popularity (a combination of likes and comments) and freshness.

To help navigate the log, Connect shows the filters currently in use directly above the activity log and provides  a “reset filters” link in the filter widget.

But wait, there’s more.

We also have some Easter Egg filters to sort by a specific person’s post and to filter by feeds and their original sources.

And, we’re planning to add a source filter too. As more applications use our APIs, the source of a post becomes more relevant,  e.g. OraTweet , Oracle People App iPhone app, HR (for HR changes), etc.

Consolidate output of the information we aggregate
Another byproduct of aggregating information is consolidating it. Of course, we publish feeds, for easy consumption, making Connect a feed munger a la Yahoo Pipes.

Anthony did great work on feed imports, and he built in the ability for Connect to produce a feed for any combination of filters you might be viewing, very neat and useful feature.

This wasn’t in my original design. He just thought it would be a cool and built it, so I got an Easter Egg feature myself when I started testing.

Of course, feeds aren’t highly adopted, and a very common request is email integration to notify people about content. We have big plans for good old email, which is still the ruler of all communication here.

We’ll build that soon enough, although I remain skeptical about how excited people will be when we spam them. Having digest emails doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get click through traffic. At least that’s how I am with LinkedIn, Ning and Google Groups when they send digest email.

We have bigger plans. Rich and Anthony are already working on an email this post feature, which should drop soon, and beyond that, we’re thinking about a Posterous-style feature that’s dead simple. We’re infatuated with email integrations, and this would give everyone a blog without even knowing it. Posterous is super cool, by the way.

Anyway, this release is a step in that direction, laying groundwork.

Give groups a more independent experience
This was Rich’s baby.

So, when you navigate to a group’s main page, the navigation changes to focus on the group, rather than keeping the group bottled up inside the Connect navigation.

The search box moves down slightly to indicate its context is group search. Constraining search to include only a group’s content was an enhancement requested by several people. Also, the main navigation is replaced by the group’s about, which now includes a group home page and email address and will eventually include linkage to an OraTweet group.

It’s a bit jarring, but we think people will get used to it and appreciate their own little slice of Connect.

Rich built what we’re calling the Oracle Connect widget (I know, naming is hard), which is a nifty way to navigate Connect while on a group page.

The Oracle Connect widget, I know terrible name

We’ll eventually allow skinning of groups to make them even more independent.

What now?
So far, reactions have been positive, and we haven’t hit any major bugs (knocking on wood). We’ll probably head to the whiteboard soon to map out the next release, after we clean up some bugs and migrate to bigger servers. Connect has done really well on what is essentially a beefy desktop machine, but we have some bigger iron that will make it really hum.

This post is pretty long. Kudos for finishing. Sound off in the comments.




  1. Whoa. Very keen. Two thoughts:

    1) Please tell me there's a move afoot to get this into something customer-accessible like Beehive (I know, I know, Oracle employees not permitted to comment on product timelines, direction, features, etc. outside of official channels. Just consider it a +1 vote.)

    2) I can't believe you missed a chance to nab an image like this one for this post. 😉

    Nicely done.

  2. I say nothing because it looks like I'm stalking @jpiwowar (you should be watching hockey, not reading blogs).

    I have nothing new to add here.

  3. Just wanted to leave a comment here from an employee perspective. Good job guys, I really like the changes. I especially like the ability to bring aggregate feeds. Hoping this will help bring RSS to the masses.

    Thanks again for all the work.

  4. Thanks John.

    Excellent call on the image. I will update and kudos for picking a CC-licensed one I can use.

    Rock on; oh, your +1 is duly noted 🙂

  5. Thanks for using Connect and driving its adoption. Without support from users like you, we don't have a Connect.

  6. Just tried Posterous and am amazed and astounded that no one has thought of this before.

    The number of people I've heard say “I don't know how to blog” is horrifying and trying to convince them that “it's as easy as writing an email” has been very hard. Suddenly, it is as easy as writing an email!!

    If we can get that sort of functionality into Connect it would be stunning. I especially like that when I send a URL to something like Youtube it actually embeds the video in the entry. Very nice. If we could get that for email and tweet submissions, wow!!!

  7. Our goal is to add more support for email, ultimately adding a Posterous-style integration.

    Email isn't going away anytime soon, so we're hoping to draw people into Connect via features like email this post, reply to comments via email, digest emails for groups, and blog by email.

    Glad you like the media plugin. Rich will be happy. It's his shiny object.

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