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IBM's Surprising Social Ambitions

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, IBM. Guessing which of the five doesn't belong would seem like a no-brainer, but while IBM isn't solely focused as a company on social media like the other four, it's hardly a newcomer; in fact it has some very substantial offerings.

"We're probably the leader in social software for business," said IBM's Brendan Crotty in a briefing here at the company's Silicon Valley Lab here last week. "We've done a lot of work around ROI working with customers to understand where social media can best be used and what the impact is."

Crotty said IBM (NYSE: IBM) has been working hard to erase its traditionally stodgy image though keeping its business focus.

"As college kids and this new generation of workers comes along that grew up using social media, we want to make these systems appealing. It won't be as loose as what they used in college because there are still policies and procedures, but it will be more familiar."

Furthermore, IBM walks the walk. The company said its collaboration tools save IBM $98 million in travel and $17 million in telephone expenses annually.

Take IBM's Sametime, a unified communications and collaboration system that includes enterprise instant messaging. "It's one of the primary tools we use to communicate with," said Crotty, who directs IBM's cloud computing/collaboration effort. "If someone leaves me a voicemail, I'm ticked off. We've saved something like $90 million on telephone calls."

And while IBM isn't known as a social media company, Crotty argues the definition is murky in user's minds. "A lot of people when they're using blogs and wikis in an enterprise don't even realize it's 'social software'," he said. Another example: IBM's Lotus Connections offers "Twitter-like" microblogging behind the firewall.

Analyst Blair Pleasant thinks IBM has great collaboration offerings, but probably needs to do a better job marketing its advantages. "I think they are the leader in social software for business when you look at IBM, Microsoft and a market that's littered with startups," Pleasant, president and principal analyst with Commfusion, told InternetNews.com. "Cisco's had some great announcements, but they haven't delivered yet. Microsoft has SharePoint but IBM has a broader portfolio of both on-premise and cloud services."

That said, Pleasant thinks every time Microsoft wins another account for its Exchange e-mail service, it probably makes it more difficult for IBM. "Companies may not be aware they can run IBM's Sametime on Microsoft Exchange and with Outlook e-mail," she said, keeping them in the Microsoft camp.

As for Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), the communications giant held a Collaboration Summit earlier this month, where it unveiled several new products that are still in a testing phase.

The company is also looking to expand its reach in the videoconferencing space via its proposed purchase of Tandberg, though that deal has hit a few snags.

Crotty said one of the ways IBM is innovating is to extend collaboration beyond the enterprise to partners, customers and suppliers. For example, its Lotus Quickr team collaboration software lets groups communicate behind as well as outside the firewall.

Quickr uses a "guest" format that lets you give someone outside the firewall a limited profile to share certain information like specific documents or files related to a project. "With three clicks you can be sharing information," said Crotty.

Pleasant said IBM has done a good job creating one user interface for activities and profiles and giving users the ability to tag information for easy recall. "I like the seamlessness of the way things work together," she said. "And it's easy to bring in guests. These are the kinds of things that improve productivity so it's not just an intra-company experience."

Looking ahead, Crotty said to expect more integration of services in early 2010 designed to make communications easier and more effective. In a demo he showed one step already -- integration with Salesforce.com, where you can start a LotusLive meeting from directly within Salesforce CRM.

"We want to get out of the inbox, but a lot happens there so we're looking for ways to make that information more relevant with linkage across all the services," he added.