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Mills Spikes Consumer Social Software For IBM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- IBM  currently has no plans to challenge Google, Yahoo and others in the consumer market for social networking, according to Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive for IBM's Software Group.

Mills, speaking during an event here in IBM's research lab to demonstrate the company's existing and in-development social networking software, said he didn't think IBM needs to extend its wiki and mashup technologies to the consumer sphere.

Mills said businesses are looking for trustworthy products, such as IBM Lotus Notes or Lotus Sametime, and suggested that social networking "freeware" from Google or Yahoo, while great for home use, may have unpredictable outcomes.

"There is a level of industrial strength that's demanded within business because time is money..." Mills said. "There's a very different and distinct set of characteristics for these kinds of technologies in business as compared to the stateless, public Internet. We can't confuse these things."

IDC analyst Frank Gens said IBM is perfectly set up to play the role of a company that makes these technologies safe and industrial strength for an enterprise environment.

But he also questioned whether or not IBM can play that role successfully in the long term if they are not also successfully competing around those technologies in the consumer market, which is where the innovation and adoption is rampant.

"Can they just wait for the technology to emerge in the space they're not playing in and say 'now we'll take it'?" Gens asked. "Because the companies, whether it's Google, Yahoo or the countless number of Web 2.0 companies that are consumer oriented, are not just going to stay in that consumer market."

Google , Yahoo  and other smaller players are currently duking it out in the social-networking software arena, acquiring companies and writing software that lets consumers keep blogs , wikis  and composite applications called mashups .

These tools provide other venues for groups of Web users to interact with each other and share information.

IBM is building similar tools; the key difference is IBM envisions such software as helping corporate employees, particularly those spread out in remote areas of the world, more quickly and efficiently work together on team projects.

For example, one of the products demoed at the event was Lotus Sametime 7.5.1, a point upgrade for the company's instant messaging client that will go live in a couple of weeks. This upgrade will feature live video so workers can see each other as they are chatting, along with Macintosh PC support and integration with Microsoft Outlook.

That is the type of social networking and collaboration IBM is interested in.

Mills said CIOs are focused on the ability to integrate business processes and shared services. For many businesses in competition, collaboration will be the difference maker, he added. Social-networking technologies are going to play a role in that.

"Smart CIOs look at this not just in the context of something that happens in the consumer world that teenagers may be in love with but that has the same paradigm apply in business because businesses have purpose-based problems of a similar nature," Mills said.

IBM's researchers are looking to solve those problems.

Big Blue faces competition in the enterprise social-networking tools market from Oracle, which launched WebCenter Suite earlier this year and BEA, which earlier this week introduced three new collaboration tools for programmers at O'Reilly's ETech conference.