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IBM's Social-Network Experiment

IBM announced today that customers will be able to attend its annual Lotusphere conference virtually on Second Life, a 3-D virtual-reality world.

Taking a MySpace and Facebook page from the consumer world, the company is pushing the use of social-networking software to illustrate how businesses can use lessons learned from virtual worlds to solve real-world business problems.

According to IBM CTO Irving Wladawsky-Berger, "using such virtual, highly visual capabilities to help us design, simulate, optimize, operate and manage business activities of all sorts is going to be one of the most important breakthroughs in the IT industry over the next decade."

IBM said it will launch the virtual Lotusphere Complex in Second Life on Tuesday. It is encouraging customers to create avatars (flying Second Life characters created and manipulated by real-life users) so they can interact with Lotus experts, learn about software solutions, and experience Lotusphere from wherever they are.

Michael Rhodin, general manager of Lotus and IBM Software, said the company is extending the FaceBook and MySpace metaphors into the business world with what he termed a "MyBusinesSpace" product portfolio.

"This is a natural extension of our collaboration roots. With an aggressive array of user-friendly and out-of-the-box software, Lotus software represents an alternative to other rigid, closed, and proprietary offerings in the marketplace," Rhodin said in a statement.

The company initially revealed its plans to use Second Life as a virtual proving ground for collaboration and other "experiments" with interactivity last November.

In recent weeks, it has helped a pair of large retailers open virtual stores where users can interact with dedicated sales agents, learn about new products and make purchases through the retailers' online stores.

IBM is not the only tech company trying to find ways of exploiting virtual worlds for real-world benefits.

Sun Microsystems , for example, held a press conference in Second Life in October.

The Lotus division picked a great time to hold a conference and tout its success having just posted its second consecutive year of double-digit growth. Revenue from Lotus-Domino products rose by 30 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006.

Mark Loughridge, IBM's senior vice president and CFO credited "strong momentum in collaborative products and broad adoption of enhanced Sametime 7.5," during a conference call with analysts and reporters last week.

Collaboration software, Sametime 7.5, shipped in the third quarter of 2006.