IBM began making a lot of noise about social business at last year's Lotusphere, and this year the message from the keynote stage was almost entirely about making business communications and collaboration more social. This year's event also features a conference within the conference, called Connect 2012, devoted to highlighting social business success stories.
IBM is building on all its assets in collaboration technology, document management, and data analysis to create what it hopes will become the dominant enterprise social software platform.
The announcements revolved around a few themes:
-- Later this year, the release of IBM Connections version 4 (also referred to as "Connections Next") will incorporate the OpenSocial 2.0 standard for application integration, with particular emphasis on a portion of the standard that allows applications to be embedded in a social media activity stream.
-- Organizations that take advantage of both Notes and Connections will be offered an upgrade to Notes Social Edition, which makes social content including the OpenSocial application embedding capability, available within the Notes environment. In other words, Notes becomes a social media client as well as an email client.
-- Connections Next will allow users to check their email and calendar without leaving the social environment. This version of Connections, now in beta, provides its own web based clients for calendar and email that work with Notes but will also work with Microsoft Exchange.
-- IBM is offering social media analytics from Cognos, which can be applied both internally and externally. The next version of IBM Connections will include integrated analytics for providing metrics on the performance of the social network itself, such as user engagement.
-- IBM is continuing to enhance the Connections mobile client and provide more ways for employees to get all their work done from a mobile device.
-- IBM Docs, to be delivered as a feature of Connections and IBM's cloud social software in the second half of the year, IBM will be a web-based document editor similar to Google Docs, but with either cloud or on premises deployment options.
Leading an onstage demo of Connections Next, IBM vice president of social software Jeff Schick particularly emphasized the ability for applications to integrate at the activity stream level – not just by presenting notifications within the stream, but by providing streamlined apps to allow users to take immediate action. Much like an embedded YouTube video can be viewed from within the stream on Facebook, an embedded business transaction from SAP can be embedded in the Connections stream, so that the user can click on it and open up an embedded app in the sidebar of the page – for example, to approve or reject an invoice, or perhaps simply to comment on it.
"Here I can take quick actions, never needing to switch contexts," Schick said. Because OpenSocial is an open standard also used in some consumer web contexts, "this allows for the widest developer ecosystem we've ever embraced," he said.
OpenSocial is endorsed by other enteprise social software players such as Jive Software, but Schick said IBM is the first to implement the activity stream app embedding functionality.
Although IBM Connections was formerly branded Lotus Connections, and competitors like to dismiss it as being only of interest to Notes shops, there is no technical dependency between the two. At the same time that IBM wants to emphasize the potential synergy between the two to its Notes customers, Schick said about 60% of the firms adopting connections use Microsoft Exchange.
Alistair Rennie, IBM's general manager for social business, said it was important to build an email and calendar interface into Connections because "a lot of people are comfortable in the native social environment to the point where having to exit to email is a disruption." By allowing them to access either Notes or Exchange resources through a web interface, Connections can serve as the single user interface for both short collaborative messages in the activity stream and other types of messages in email.
"On the other hand, Notes has always been more than email and calendaring, and we're building on that," he said. Users who are most comfortable with Notes as their primary communications environment will likewise be able to have both email and social interactions through the same user interface.
IBM did not disclose release dates for the new products. In an interview prior to the conference Schick mentioned May as a target for the new Connections release, but that's not official.