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IBM Sees Progress On Social Software Standards

Support for OpenSocial makes it easier to adapt and embed new and legacy applications for use with enterprise social networks.

Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide
Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide
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Support for standards means enterprise social networks need not stand alone, IBM software executives said in a briefing for press and analysts at its IBM Connect conference this week.

By supporting a constellation of standards unified by OpenSocial, IBM said it is expanding the practical uses of its IBM Connections social collaboration platform, making it easier to embed business process workflows in the social stream.

"IT shops are concerned about will their skills move into this world -- and the answer is yes," said Todd Moore, director of infrastructure standards and partnerships at IBM. His standards conversations with customers typically cover the cloud as well as social ("You can't have one conversation without the other," he said), but business and technology leaders want to know that social software will simplify their lives rather than complicate them.

[ Want to know who's really paying attention? Read Are Universal Social Engagement Standards Possible?]

At the same time, Moore sees momentum for the adoption of social software. The business environment is changing as social media empowers customers, and people want to be connected to that, he said. "They want to be able to manage their business and the view of their business from within a social network."

Support for OpenSocial embedded experiences arrived in enterprise social networks from IBM and Jive Software last year, and application vendors such as SugarCRM also actively promote the standard.

Together with OAuth, the ActivityStreams standard, HTML5 and other Web standards, OpenSocial provides developers with a roadmap for getting contextual cues from the social environment, inserting notifications in the social stream, and creating embedded experiences. Because most of the integration is accomplished mashup-style, at the level of the user interface, it's accessible to developers with HTML and JavaScript skills. That is, most of the complexity is delegated to the social platform acting as a "container" for these user interface components.

In a demo shown at the briefing, IBM created an embeddable user interface for SAP's travel management system. This allowed an employee to book a flight through a widget displayed as a sidebar in Connections, which automatically generated a notification in the social stream of the employee's manager. The manager sees that notification in the social stream and can improve it immediately using an embedded widget without ever leaving the context of the social network. Because IBM has added OpenSocial support to Notes, the same sort of embedded experience is now also possible there -- a manager can approve a travel request, expense report or other workflow action without ever leaving the email client. The idea is to avoid productivity-draining "context switching."

Andy Smith, an IBM engineer who serves as an officer of the OpenSocial Foundation, said he purposely recruited a back-end Java software developer rather than a Web programmer to create the demo, to make a point. "You tend to think of applications like this requiring deep JavaScript skills and knowledge of all the latest frameworks," he said. But as he tutored the Java engineer on OpenSocial, he said, "Within the first day, he kind of got it." By the second day they had a working OpenSocial "gadget," and by the third they had a slicker embedded experience working.

"It was relatively simple," Smith said. "Although the developer certainly put more time into improving the demo, the time that it took him to get up to speed was about three days." This wasn't a matter of creating an application from scratch because the basic Java Server Pages code used to display the same user interface as an independent Web application had already been written. But that's just the point. Because of the way OpenSocial is architected, developers can adapt most any application with a Web user interface and enhance it with context from the social network.

The OpenSocial approach doesn't enjoy universal support. Some other social platform players, notably Yammer (now part of Microsoft), have argued that Web 2.0 beats Enterprise 2.0, making it better to imitate de facto standards like Facebook's OpenGraph. The implication is that the influence of enterprise vendors like IBM is likely to result in a standard that's too larded-down with complexity.

Smith said the involvement of open source developers, such as the participants in the Apache Shindig reference implementation for OpenSocial, tends to "self-regulate" the introduction of complexity because the standard must dovetail with working code.

"You have to separate out some of the business level propaganda about standards, as opposed to what's actually in the technology," said Kevin Cavanaugh, VP of business and technical strategy for IBM. "I think we've learned to do standards better, in a lighter way, by providing the code that shows how things work."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. Hear case studies from senior enterprise executives, as well as from the leaders of major industry players like Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Google and more. Register for Enterprise Connect 2013 today with code IWKPREM to save $200 off a conference pass or get a free Expo Pass. It happens March 12-21 in Orlando, Fla.

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