IBM and the Maturing Activity Stream

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It’s without question that the activity stream represents the modern application. It is a staple of social technology. Twitter, Facebook and new services like Path use the activity stream to engage and build communities. In the social business world, established players like Salesforce.com pump Chatter more than any of its other services. SAP uses activity streams as the core feature for SAP Streamworks. Yammer has what my most trusted colleagues say is some of the most sophisticated activity stream technology. Tim Young of Socialcast sold his company to VMware. It now represents an anchor technology for VMware as it moves up the stack to compete more directly with Microsoft and its Office suite.

And then there’s IBM, which last week hosted its annual Lotusphere event. IBM Connections uses activity stream technology as its core underpinning.  In Connections Next, IBM leverages OpenSocial 2.0, the open collaborative environment Google initially developed for consumer app integration but is now far more widely used by enterprise shops to pull together disparate apps.

With Connections Next, the activity stream includes numerous new features:

  • Embedded apps in the activity stream
  • Live video connections in the activity stream
  • In-line views of videos and images
  • Enterprise content management integration
  • Internet of Things compatibility
  • MS Exchange support
  • Analytics

Lotus is no fresh goose. Its origins date back to the 1990s. But the new services announced last week give it an edge that has not been seen with Lotus in years.

The activity stream transforms Lotus. Analyst Michael Fauscette  says it well. Solutions like Lotus benefit greatly from activity streams as they give a modern UI to aging core systems.

It changes the whole nature of the offering. Fauscette points out that all the demos were done on iPads. Lotus now suddenly has a way to be relevant in a post-PC society by supporting the major mobile OS environments with security features such as remote wipe capabilities.

It’s like seeing a family change. Today, Lotus Notes is the senior and IBM Connections is the new kid who is different but still feels like part of the family. Then there are all these related newcomers.

These are the third party apps such as Harmon.ie, which pulls in Sharepoint updates to an activity stream within the Lotus Notes client.

Here’s a demo that CEO Yaacov Cohen gave me a demo last week over lunch one day at Lotusphere.

Cohen says Harmon.ie will put an emphasis on Web apps this year to deepen its integration capabilities.

IBM’s full integration of the activity stream will give Lotus a much needed boost. Of all the IBM software groups, Lotus fared the worst in the fourth quarter, showing a 2% decline. All the other groups showed increases. Analysts say that with Alistair Rennie in charge of the division, Lotus should show improvement. They’ll have to fix some things. IBM Connections does not recognize the “@” symbol, now a standard feature in activity stream services.

On the plus side, Lotus has added features such as the Lotus Live video conferencing. It can be launched in the activity stream. Interestingly, IBM dropped the Lotus Live name and is now including it in its IBM SmartCloud for Social Business. That sets a precedent. Is this what we can expect from IBM? Talk about dropping the Lotus name drifts into discussions at times with people who follow the company. Adding Lotus into the IBM SmartCloud family would seem like a logical option.

More Friction Needed?

IBM is fitting a lot into its activity stream. This points to a popular trend to make activity streams frictionless. Facebook crams so much into the stream that it starts to look like a two-track river of news.

New social network Path takes a different approach. It limits the activity stream. It is only available on mobile devices. And you can’t include a link in an update. That has made it a great place to share photos and images with a select group. It serves a different purpose than an enterprise focused stream but it does point to a trend. There is demand for more friction inside an activity stream. And the key may be mobile. With Path, you may feed your updates from it to Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare. It’s flexible and clears the river of its clutter. Twitter has become a megaphone to some degree but filtering there is easy enough. By adding mobile into the equation, a certain friction surfaces that can make the experience less like being underwater in a muddy stream. Lotus Connections does a decent job of filtering. You can create social networks on the fly. You can add people from in or outside of the company into one of these micro-communities.

In all, IBM Connections gives value to the large enterprise, where we expect Connections to have its biggest play. The activity stream has matured and businesses are adding social technologies. But IBM faces stiff competition. VMware is leveraging Socialcast to develop a collaboration suite. Salesforce.com also has its view set on the top of the stack. Microsoft lacks an activity stream but Outlook can easily integrate third-party apps like Harmon.ie.  It’s clear the frictionless experience is prospering. But some slowing down is okay. But it needs to be seamless. I expect Alistair Rennie will have a lot more to say when Lotusphere returns to Orlando in 2013, especially if it can master the nuances of when to offer friction points that ease the burden on the end user.

About Alex Williams

Alex Williams is an editor for SiliconAngle and lives a charmed life in Portland, Or.