This morning I had the pleasure of attending (part of – don’t remember the last time I was able to attend all of something) the IBM Academy of Technology Conference on Future User Interfaces held at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge. It was refreshing a relief, after a train ride in spent reading about AIG and Wall Street woes, to be in a room full of researchers and academics all excited about the potential of social computing — IBM Fellow Irene Greif started out with a light comment on how software may help those of us that live in a cold place like Boston reap some of the innovation benefits of the sidewalk-cafe-kind-of-culture in Silicon Valley (my years in Silicon Valley were more about office parks and 101 traffic, if I remember, but I get what she’s saying).
One of the points of this meeting, which was mostly attended by IBMers and local academics, was to announce the formation of a the IBM Center for Social Software; Irene Greif will be the center’s director. Headquartered at IBM’s research labs in Cambridge, the intent is to centralize IBM’s various research efforts in social computing. The center will provide additional resources to IBM’s global research teams and external organizations so that they can better test social software “in the wild,” as Irene put it — within IBM’s enormous employee base or on the public web. The Boston Globe has a write-up with further details.
This morning’s session included three demos. The first was of Beehive, a social networking and profiling system being used by about 40,000 IBMers. At IBM, this sits alongside the corporate BluePages directory and is more free form, in terms of who uses it and what kinds of information they share. The next demo, from IBM’s Tokyo-based research group, was the Social Accessibility Project, an effort to improve page meta tagging for accessibility through community efforts (I don’t often think about how the visually-impaired work on the Web, so this was a particularly interesting demo). Finally we saw Many-Eyes, a visualization project that has been out on the web for awhile – if you have any data sets that might work well visually, it is worth checking out.
The reason all of this is interesting, outside of it just being interesting (if that makes sense), is because IBM has done a particularly good job in getting its technology out its labs and into commercial software products. Lotus Connections, which Irene referred to today as “our fastest growing software product ever” (I’ve seen this claim elsewhere), came largely from technologies that started out in IBM labs, were deployed internally at IBM and then rolled into the commercial product. At Lotusphere last January, I saw a number of technologies from the labs that seemed destined for the Lotus line. And at Enterprise 2.0 in January June, we heard that Spectacular, the RSS feed aggregation server developed in the labs and that I first saw at Lotusphere, would be in the next version of Connections.
Further investment from IBM on this front indicates its seriousness about social software and points to the likelihood that IBM Lotus will continue to innovate. It has formidable competition, with so many organizations heading to Microsoft SharePoint, but so far IBM’s research investments in this area have given it some competitive advantage.