In December, IBM finally released one of the missing pieces of its SmartCloud social business platform in the shape of SmartCloud Docs on the public cloud. There was quite a bit of excitement, as it appeared that IBM had entered the cloud-based productivity suite market. But as Ed Brill, Director of Product Management for IBM Social Business, told us, this wasn't really the case.

When you think of the cloud and productivity suite space you think more often than not, of Google Apps, Office or even Office 365, but not IBM. However, while the word "Docs" features prominently in the name of the new product, and while it does indeed facilitate the creation and editing of docs, that's not what it’s all about.

In fact, the release of Docs is the addition of a missing element to the SmartCloud platform, but it is not an end in itself. With its release, Brill said, IBM closed a gap in its social business platform.

Productivity vs. Enterprise Collaboration

And that's what all of this is about -- SmartCloud Docs is not about productivity suites, but about social business. While the difference between the two is not always clear, Brill says the focus on productivity suites is on document and content creation, while here it’s about sharing and collaborating on that content.

What we aimed to do here was to create a social document in a browser that could be integrated with the rest of our portfolio," said Brill.

So, it does do many of the things that other productivity suites can do, but that is not the focus. It has word processing, spreadsheet and presentation tools, but rather than just focusing on their abilities in these areas, IBM focused on enabling functions like real-time concurrent editing, presence awareness and document sharing.

But while many applications can do that, the sharing element is core here:

When you create a documents in SmartCloud Docs, it’s instantly sharable with your communities, with your teams, with your activities… you can monitor and work on new versions and comments… it becomes part of the entire social fabric of enterprise processes."

In fact, Brill says it was never really designed to compete with the likes of Office. Instead, while he says he is confident about the abilities of SmartCloud Docs around word processing, presentations and document creating, these abilities are only there to provide users with the things that they need on a daily basis.

Not that IBM doesn't have a background that could have provided it with those capabilities from Lotus Smart Suite or Lotus 123, but the objective was only to provide the necessary capabilities and then focus on the collaboration capabilities.

... we have all the expertise going back to Lotus Smart Suite, Lotus 123 and the like, so I’m very confident of the abilities of the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation abilities they are not destined to be a full replacement for Office but for the typical user to get them the key capabilities they need… for me as a key executive running a business, I don’t do large spreadsheets with loads of macros, so on a day to day basis just about anything I need to do I can do within SmartCloud Docs..."

From here, there will be the inevitable progression that will see IBM add to the functionality of Docs as the platform itself evolves.

The SmartCloud for Social Business platform is updated on three or six month cycles, and Brill anticipates upgrades to the Docs element as the whole platform moves on. IBM will not just work on Docs while forgetting about the rest -- everything will get moved on together. The result is that there is likely to be two or even three upgrades in the current calendar year.

SmarCloudDocs On-Premises

But this is not the really interesting milestone over the coming year. Brill says they are also working on an on-premises version with a German client. And while he didn't say when this will see the light of day, he said there would be more developments over the coming year.

The demand for on-premises versions will always be there as long as there are regulatory or compliance issues around the storage and sharing of confidential information -- the reason verticals like banking never went the public cloud route in the first place.

There are a lot of organizations that see their user documents and their user social capabilities as something that they want to keep in their own environments and they may have privacy or regulatory requirements… in banking for example, where cloud services have not really taken off, and we have private clouds through SmartCloud Enterprise, so there is that option too... short answer is that we will deploy in a way that makes sense of the customer’s requirements..."

Hybrid environments are the logical step from this, but it is not an immediate concern. They are on the way, but the focus for the coming months will be getting the on-premises version ready.

The first thing that we are going to be looking at is this premise based deployment and really building that out… the other thing is that there really is an opportunity to expand the social aspects. We would like to add new social abilities such as the ability to highlight a section of a word-processing document, assign to a person to work one and have that appear in the activity stream."

The focus, he says, is more social integration overall and integration with the rest of the environment as a whole. And this is another distinguishing feature from the rest.

Users have everything they may need for social business and all of that integrated and just one or two clicks away... that’s the way we designed the dashboard… With Google Apps or Office there is a load of applications but there isn't a lot off integration between them... we built a platform where every piece of the equation fits into every other part of the equation and they are all easily accessible with just one or two clicks."