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BEA, IBM get social too early

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Earlier this year, both BEA and IBM announced upcoming additions to their middleware offerings that would extend the ability to incorporate Web 2.0 functionality, such as creating mashups.

Now both companies have made more extensive announcements, with each including a subtle but significant shift towards branding the additions as well as providing the social computing model in a form compatible with business applications.

This is an interesting twist in that the rise in not just popularity, but the perception of significance of services such as MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Wikis, blogging, and del.icio.us, not to mention Second Life, has suddenly given social computing a prominence in the mindset of business systems strategists that was not there even six months ago.

There are certainly some tricks to be learned from the way these applications provide an environment for users to play within. These tricks can, and probably should, be applied to the future development of business-related services. Mashups and Wikis are two obvious candidates that have immediate potential as tools in building new business services.

But there are signs that the software industry, in its keenness to jump on the social-computing-as-business-tool bandwagon (indeed, to be seen as driving it), seems to have lost sight of one of those tricks – namely that none of the social software tools started life as a planned product with a defined sales cycle but rather emerged from small groups of people sharing a common view that "if we could do this it would be 'cool'". To paraphrase the Irish saying, they were doing it for the craic, not the meeting of business goals.

It may seem a trivial point, but this is in practice a subtle difference to the position being taken by BEA and IBM. In essence, they are adopting the view that social computing trends are going to be significant, so business users need to buy a set of tools that can be integrated with the existing product sets the companies produce. This does seem to be putting the cart before the horse in the traditional way of software vendors, where the obvious vested interest is to convince (primarily existing) customers that they are going to need "Technology X" soon, so they had better buy it from their favourite supplier right now.

The product carts now being offered will no doubt prove to be excellent, but without yet knowing what the horse of user/business needs might be, there is no way of knowing whether they may match up.

The trouble is many of the social computing technology providers have already been bought up by bigger companies that play in the social space, so the business software vendors don't have open to them the traditional option of cutting deals with the start ups, and then acquiring them. To get Flickr and or del.icio.us now, they would have to buy out Yahoo! lock, stock and barrel. The only alternative is to come up with their own alternatives.

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