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The best way to make social software is to make the best software

By Andrew Pollack on 02/28/2011 at 05:58 PM EST

IBM did an excellent job focusing and defining the conversation with this year’s Lotusphere. While the rest of the IT industry is rushing to get their cloud strategy in order, IBM asks the question “What is social software for business?” It’s a great question, but may not be one with the answer IBM wants. Software isn’t social. People are social. People have been using social tools for business for as long as there have been people and businesses. Ask any sales person and they’ll tell you that all business is social. So why is ‘social software’ a big deal all of a sudden?

It’s evolution, not revolution. Software user interface trends don’t evolve at a steady rate, but rather in leaps and jumps based on innovative ideas. Ideas like the Graphical User Interface, the Mouse, the Touch Screen, the clickable “hot spot” – these were all major innovations that came about when the technology was ready and the right person with the right funding got the job done. Adding “Social” to software is no different. The web browser provided a uniformity of platform and home connectivity became ubiquitous so the time was right for software to become “people-aware”. Facebook and Linked-In ended up being the leaders in the space, but nearly all large scale software today has a social aspect to it. Failure to consider people working together with software in 2011 is like failing to consider a mouse in 1998. Any good piece of software will at this point be written with a consideration for how multiple people will use it together.

My point is that software vendors should not be rethinking entire application platforms and strategies just to mimic a few successful and fun tools like Twitter. They should be continuing to focus on what makes their software special and valuable, while working to provide the right integration points in that software to make them as able as possible to integrate with the vast array of social tools people want to use. Don’t replicate or attempt to replace Facebook – integrate with it. Don’t make just another instant messaging client, look more closely as what makes the leading tools better than the rest and figure out how to hook into those tools.

Social Software isn’t stove-piped and it isn’t tied to any specific architecture. Social software is well built and comfortable to use. It doesn’t have weird error messages, obscure feature sets and deeply nested menu systems. It has low overhead and integrates cleanly with many other things. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, or force you into just one way of doing things. Facebook and Twitter are tied to image tools, other web sites, url shorteners, multiple open clients and a vast ecosystem of third party toys. They work differently for different people.

People make software social by using it to socialize, not the other way around. To make the best social software, you absolutely have to start by making the best software.

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