IBM's Lotus has jumped into social networking, offering a suite of on-line collaboration software called Lotus Connections alongside its existing Lotus Notes and Domino family. We asked the company's world-wide strategy exec Alan Lepofsky to explain why - wasn't Lotus already doing on-line collaboration?

The difference, he claims, is that Connections also picks up on the new, more open, ways of sharing and managing knowledge often described - rightly or wrongly - as Web 2.0, and best known from websites such as Myspace, Linkedin and Facebook.

"In many way, it's the evolution of the rest of the industry starting to 'get it'," he says. "For some, Web 2.0 is Notes generation 2.0 - we understood communities already. People see the sharing of information on the web, and that's something we've done for years.

"That said, this goes beyond what Notes did - the new tools are breaking down boundaries not just between departments, but with customers too."

Connections developed out of an in-house toolset called IBM Innovation Factory, and features five main elements: profiles, shared bookmarks, activities, communities and blogs. IBM says its own staff have been using the software for months, for example they can search through the profiles of 340,000 colleagues to locate those with the expertise they need.

"Profiling is an evolution of your Linkedin or Myspace page, adding management, activities and so on," says Lepofsky. "We could have built it in the Domino directory, but we also wanted to be able to reach non-Domino customers and users."

He adds that Connections also removes the need to import documents into a separate store. Instead, the bookmarking tool - called DogEar - lets users tag documents and web pages, and then share their lists.

Expert advice

"DogEar for me as an IBM employee has completely replaced my habit of Googling for answers," says Lepofsky. "Now I go to DogEar and get maybe 40, 50 or 100 links that have already been vetted by the subject experts in my company that I trust.

"I can also see who bookmarked what, so I get to see who IBM's subject experts are. The profile system lists what they're doing and which projects they've worked on, it could contain their bookmarks too."

So is this the end for Lotus Notes, superseded by the flexibility and ubiquity of Web 2.0? Not at all, says Lepofsky, who claims that both still have their roles to play.

"There's times where the web is good, but a rich client still has a lot of power," he says. "The new software is exciting but it still doesn't have off-line support, unified communications, security support or cross-platform support, for example."

He adds that while the new software is designed to promote collaboration - "We even used the collaboration tools to work on redeveloping the user interface for Notes 8," he says - it doesn't replace Notes and Domino if you want to build composite apps and workflows, say.

Many people will undoubtedly try to compare Lotus Connections with the latest version of Microsoft's collaboration software, SharePoint Server 2007, which includes a more basic set of social networking technologies, such as blogs and wikis.

Is the fact that IBM's launched a separate set of tools, whereas Microsoft just has SharePoint, going to confuse potential buyers and lead them to think they'll need to do integration work?

Absolutely not, claims Lepofsky. He argues that it's a marketing myth that Microsoft's collaboration software is built in, whereas the Lotus equivalent is a separate package.

"SharePoint is not one thing - you don't buy one product, or run it all on one server," he says. "They are not building a single product. What they have is a very nice marketing term - SharePoint."

Web 2.0 Inside?

He adds, "We have a huge pipeline of customers asking for Web 2.0 functionality, but inside their own firewalls." He points out that Connections doesn't mandate Notes or SameTime instant messaging, so it can also be used alongside other email and IM software. It means you can share email and chat transcripts with colleagues working on the same task or project, for example.

But surely the big advantage of those public on-line communities is the huge number of people already on there - it means there's a fair chance that you will find your friends, or someone with the skills to answer your queries. Staying within the firewall might be fine for IBM, with the expertise of 340,000 staff to draw upon, but will it work for smaller organisations?

Lepofsky reckons that it will, citing the examples of the many companies whose staff already use public community sites to share information and collaborate.

Some of these have tried to close off access to these sites, citing security concerns - but some have failed to do so. For example, the IT department at law firm Allen & Overy banned Facebook, but was then forced into retreat by the volume of user complaints.

It turns out that while some users claim that the consumer sites sap their productivity, others are using them to discuss business issues with colleagues, and to keep in touch with potential clients in the shape of friends, classmates and former colleagues.

Predictably enough, Lepofsky argues that the solution is to run the community yourself, using business-grade software with the necessary security and regulatory compliance in place. Alternatively, he says companies could participate in shared, but business-focused communities.

"The cultural change is happening, and the technology has to be there to support it," he says "We are strongly convinced that social networking will be just like all the other technologies that have worked their way from homes to offices, such as IM, email, YouTube...

"These packages do not have to live in your organisation though. We would like to see people form groups for industries, say. We also want to use industry standards to link Connections to the customer's other systems."