Understanding Lotus Connections, IBM's Version of Web 2.0 For The Enterprise

As innovation in the consumer space spills over into the enterprise, IBM believes its social software suite that includes blogs and social networks for business will give users the collaboration features they want while giving IT the ability to hook it into existing systems.

Though IBM might not be on par with the Twitters and Facebooks of the world when it comes to social networking, analysts say the company has kept its hands on the pulse of Web 2.0 with its Lotus Connections — a social software suite that includes blogs and social networking profiles, all made for the enterprise.

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Since launching last year, Lotus Connections entered a crowded market of enterprise 2.0 vendors, companies that had taken popular Web 2.0 technologies in the consumer space like blogs, wikis and social networks and repurposed them for businesses. IBM found familiar foes as well, including Microsoft, who added social software features to its SharePoint platform.

Couple that with competition from Google, whose cheap enterprise version of Google Apps allows workers to collaborate on the Web and build shared workspaces with no programming experience, Lotus Connections represents IBM's response to a Web 2.0 world.

On the surface, Microsoft's and IBM's strategies for Web 2.0 might appear similar: identify existing customers and convince them that their social software tools are just as good as niche vendors, with the added benefit of providing better security. But analysts say SharePoint isn't truly in the spirit of Web 2.0: it relies heavily on users' having the Office productivity suite installed on their computers, and the social software on it lacks the same user-friendliness as similar tools made by start-up vendors.

IBM has taken a different approach than Microsoft. It got really serious about making their social software tools usable and easy on the eyes, which says a lot in a facet of technology where consumers (closely followed by start-up vendors) set the pace of innovation.

Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, says that Connections is as good as any product made by a vendor focused solely on social software for the enterprise, adding, "It is also very good at integrating with enterprise content."

The integration Koplowitz speaks of centers around enterprise e-mail and messaging systems (such as, but not limited to, Lotus Notes and Lotus Sametime) and databases from vendors such as Oracle and Documentum. IBM has been able to grab the data from those systems and feed it into the social networking tools in Connections.

In addition, says Jonathan Edwards, an analyst with the Yankee Group, IBM's recent partnership with Research in Motion (RIM) to put a mobile version of Connections on BlackBerry placed the vendor not only ahead of Microsoft, but enterprise 2.0 vendors as well, in the race to get online business software tools in the hands of mobile users.

What's In Connections (And Why It's Not SharePoint)

Connections consists of five core tools: social networking profiles, Dogear (a social bookmarking tool, like del.icio.us for the enterprise), blogs, activities (which allows colleagues to communicate to others what they are working on), and communities (a place to have an online forum and discuss ideas and interact with co-workers).

Unlike SharePoint, which started off as a document management system and then recently added Web 2.0 features, Connections is strictly a social software offering. IBM's main competitor to the document sharing aspect of SharePoint can be found in Lotus Quickr.

So wouldn't it be easier to put both its document management (Quickr) and social software (Connections) under one banner to compete with Microsoft SharePoint? IBM says no.

"I do get the point that from a naming and branding point of view, it'd be interesting to see it come under one umbrella," says Jeff Schick, VP of Social Software at IBM. "But in not doing so, we've differentiated the capabilities of social software with document sharing. We have also built-in integration from the different services [Quickr and Connections] to make a seamless user experience as well."

Users access Connections through a Web browser on the front end. In terms of hosting the data, Connections runs primarily on-premise (meaning, the customer buys a server to host the software), but Schick says that IBM has been beta-testing a SaaS (software-as-a-service) version, which would host users' data online.

"We see SaaS as a substantial initiative with IBM," Schick says. "We're in beta and focusing on it. We envision it for small and medium businesses, but also at the department level of enterprises."

Partnering and Integrating with Other Vendors (And Their Products)

While analysts say that IBM did a good job designing their social software tools, the company has partnered with enterprise 2.0 vendors to give its customers more choice to plug in third-party technologies such as wikis and blogs that have already become native to some enterprise environments.

IBM partnered with enterprise wiki makers Socialtext and Atlassian during the past year so their products could hook into Connections more easily.

"Many of these partners, especially in the wiki space, have enjoyed quite a good bit of marketshare," says Schick. "We want to be a flexible [offering] that plugs in. We don't want our customers to have to do a rip and replace."

But the real bonus for enterprises is the fact that IBM has worked out integration issues between Connections and other more traditional enterprise systems, such as e-mail, says the Yankee Group's Edwards.

As one would imagine, putting Connections on top of Lotus Notes and Sametime (which includes instant messaging) works especially well, but they have also done the legwork to link it to enterprise content management systems (from vendors such as Documentum) and HR databases (such as Oracle's PeopleSoft).

Being Social On The Move

Analysts say the biggest upside to Connections is that it has gone mobile faster than some rivals.

Last week, at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium in Orlando, Research in Motion (RIM) and IBM announced that Connections would be available on BlackBerry devices. Now, employees can connect with their colleagues while on the road.

The Connections BlackBerry app sets it apart from the mobile social software offerings that pure plays offer, says Jonthan Edwards of Yankee Group. Because many of the pure plays rely on the weaker mobile browser to deliver the social software to users, it lacks the capabilities of a full-featured app. "The pure plays will say if you have a Web-browser, you can access it on a mobile," he says."But there are websites you use and websites you live in. And for the website you live on, you'll want it as an app."

For IBM's Schick, mobile figures to be a big part of IBM's plan to help social software maintain a pervasiveness in the enterprise. He says a large majority of IBM customers use BlackBerry for their mobile needs, and that factored into their decision to start there. But he did hint that more partnerships from BlackBerry competitors (though he didn't say which ones) could be on the way.

"We're working with quite a few mobile platforms," he says. "It [partnership with RIM] has been a whirlwind success, but we're not planning to stop there."

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