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IBM’s Lotus Division is taking on Microsoft in the highly competitive market of social software for businesses with its new Lotus Connections products.

Speaking at the Lotusphere show here Jan. 22, Michael Rhodin, general manager of IBM Lotus, said the announcements represented the “most dramatic expansion of collaborative technology ever,” particularly in comparison with competitive alternatives “that tell you what you have to buy. Lotus has long understood the value of collaboration, and today it’s our core.”

The initiative builds off of Lotus’ legacy in collaboration, officials said. The moves put IBM in direct competition with Microsoft in the collaboration software space. Indeed, some of the technology and positioning of Lotus Connections, a key part of IBM’s push, will compete with Microsoft offerings such as Windows Live Spaces, Microsoft’s blogging and social networking software.

“While it’s difficult to comment on something we’ve only seen screen shots of and is yet to be delivered, I can tell you that Microsoft’s approach is to deliver social networking functionality in the products customers are already using rather than foist an additional suite of tools on them,” said Elisa Graceffo, group product manager for collaboration and portals at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. “What we’ve heard loud and clear from customers is that when it’s different from the tools they already use, it just doesn’t get used.”

IBM countered that its offerings are based on open, standard components, among other differences with Microsoft’s offerings. “We’re going to measure ourselves, very simply, by end-user satisfaction,” Rhodin said.

Lotus Connections lets users gather and share information through social networks and provides dashboard views of projects, people and connections in various communities. The software borrows from IBM’s deep research pockets and features five Web 2.0 technologies: Activities, Communities, Dogear, Profiles and Blogs. Activities is a Lotus technology that shares and organizes e-mail, instant messages, documents and other items related to a particular activity or project into one logical unit. Dogear is social bookmarking software that enables users to bookmark pages within their intranet. Both technologies came out of IBM Research.

Rhodin called Lotus Connections “the industry’s first ready-for-business social software platform to connect us to you, and you to us, and you to each other and to others beyond this room.” IBM’s new technology will better enable teams to work together, even virtual teams, “perhaps even rendering the concept of the office obsolete,” Rhodin said. “I like the sound of that: Office obsolete.”

Tsvi Gal, chief technology officer of Deutsche Bank, said that when his organization sought social software tools, “there were tools, but they were individual tools. We wanted one package. We are a Lotus Notes shop, so it made sense for us to work with IBM to make social networking appealing to our organization. At Deutsche Bank, I don’t know 7,500 people, but I can access each and every one of them” via the social networking software the Frankfurt, Germany, company has been working with.

Stephen O’Grady, an analyst with RedMonk, said the new IBM social software is interesting, adding that “the knock on collaboration software is that it has been around for more than 20 years. We’ve had e-mail and calendaring forever, and evolution has been incremental. But in just a couple of years we’ve seen a lot of action with open-source collaboration tools like So it’s nice to see some of the more traditional tools get some of those capabilities.”

IBM Lotus also announced Quickr, collaborative content technology that enables users to share content and integrate with wikis, blogs, content repositories and other data. Alistair Rennie, vice president of development and technical support for Lotus, called Quickr an integrated collaboration content server supporting multiple platforms.

“Quickr is the fastest way to share information across teams,” Rennie said. “You can share content with your enterprise or your business partners.”