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How IBM's sprucing up its 'social' side

Big Blue's researchers take the wraps off a bevy of beta products with a distinctively social-network flavor. But there's a bigger idea at work.

The fun thing about looking over the shoulders of computer scientists doing product demos isn't necessarily the technology they're pointing to on their computer screens. So many beta programs wind up on the cutting-room floor that it's impossible to predict with much confidence which ones ultimately will transmogrify into hit products. But more often than not, you can find clues about the direction a company wants to head.

Mashups for use in collaborative medicine? IBM

So it was that while getting a look Thursday in San Francisco at what IBM Research's been working on, I heard the phrase "social networking" mentioned so often that it sometimes sounded like a Web 2.0 revival meeting. No worries. I have it on good authority that IBM is not planning to hatch a microblogging competitor to Twitter. (Imagine the ensuing bloviation-fest if the TechMeme posse got its hands on that tidbit. Happily, we'll be spared that spectacle.) Instead, IBM is putting serious effort into finding ways to use aspects of social computing for more collaboration among enterprise users. The big idea here being to make it easier for businesses to share corporate data in more useful fashion.

"Our perspective comes from business," said Rod Smith, a computer scientist who is in charge of emerging Internet technologies at IBM. "There are many ecosystems inside the enterprise and we're seeing how they want to expand those connections. So, we're looking at how to do that."

Thus, it was show-and-tell time at what IBM dubbed its "Smarter Web Open House." The labs folks were offering a peek at a cross-section of collaborative Web technologies--mostly in early beta stages and likely to need a lot more fine-tuning in the months ahead. Here are my notes of the highlights:

•  Play-by-Play: Collaborative Web browsing via instant messaging. You can connect your Internet browser to someone else's browser and you're co-browsing with somebody else. What's particularly nice is a re-sync feature that lets the person on the other end of the connection replay the sequence of Web pages you visited. That's an idea which many a help desk would find handy.

Play-by-Play:Web browsing via instant messaging IBM

•  CoScripter: Using some of the same back-end technologies as Play-by-Play, CoScripter puts an encrypted chronological history of your computing day on your hard drive. Again, it's a feature you can deploy to share information--in this case, they call it a script--with someone else inside the organization in need of a quick answer to a question. You'll also be able to publish the scripts on Facebook or on a blog. It's obviously still rough but I could see where it might also have possibilities in the development of a corporate-wide knowledge base.

•  Privacy-aware MarketPlace: The syllables don't easily roll off the tongue, but hey, it is IBM, after all. This is a download to which privacy purists will cotton. Say you're on Facebook and receive an invitation to join a group. Privacy-aware MarketPlace basically acts as a security index. The analogy IBM uses is your credit score. Before connecting with someone, you get a glimpse at other peoples' so-called privacy scores and it recommends settings. This may be of particular utility to any of you out there fond of dissing your boss to others on Facebook.

•  SaND (Social Networks and Discovery): This project comes out of IBM's Haifa, Israel group and hails back to an earlier information retrieval project called Sonar. The idea here being to bring together documents, tags, and other relevant identifying bits of information to find relationships between people. The idea is to be able to find disparate information--ranging from blogs to what people post on their social-networking apps--through keyword search. IBM's handout is cute: It plugs SaND as a way to show "six degrees of separation." John Guare may have something to say about that. Self-serving hype notwithstanding, it represents a start about how to think about building a framework for applications such as recommendation and personalization systems.

•  Blue Spruce: IBM's been going down this path for the last several years. The goal is to turn the Web browser into more of a collaborative platform and let people do something more important to mankind than recording what they just ate for lunch. Part of this is what IBM describes as its "massive mashup" technology, which would offer ways to allow several users to huddle over Web pages and interact in real time as participants mark up the page. The example offered by IBM was the obvious one: a virtual medical room where physicians can review and comment on test data. Doctors have been notoriously slow to embrace Web 2.0 technology but this idea merits more discussion from the medical establishment.