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Ringside Networks' Bob Bickel brings customers closer with social-networking technologies.

Increasing numbers of software vendors are starting to build applications for enterprise use that leverage social-networking technologies. Many of them are focusing on advertising portals, but a few are providing ways to enable enterprises to build communities with their customers.

Bob Bickel is a serial entrepreneur, having been involved in the founding of both Bluestone Software in 2000, a Web server technology acquired by Hewlett-Packard Co., and JBoss, a Web application server acquired by Red Hat Inc. Today, he is CEO of Ringside Networks Inc., a startup that's focusing on building middleware to bring social-networking technologies into enterprises. Bickel recently sat down with Redmond's Executive Editor, Reviews Peter Varhol to discuss what the strategic impact of social networking will be on business.

Redmond: What does Ringside Networks do?
Bickel: We build middleware that lets enterprises quickly and easily build communities to connect to customers and enhance business. The Ringside Social Application Server lets organizations build social capabilities directly into Web sites while integrating with external social networks such as Facebook.

You're a baby boomer, like me. What led you to working with a business concept that appeals to younger generations?
Several things. First, I have daughters who are of the age where Facebook and similar technologies are a big part of their lives. They think e-mail is old fashioned. They're so used to interacting on Facebook that they go to college and meet the same people in person, and it's a shock. Second, I have a connection with the VC firm that initially invested in Facebook, so I came to understand the compelling nature of this business model.

But most significantly, I've been a runner for a long time, and we have a running store. I discovered that young runners, 16 to 30 years old, interact with our store in very different ways than the more mature runners. But we also saw a sense of community around all runners.

 "The need for social networking technologies in enterprises is growing fast. I recently got a cold call from the CEO of a $350 million company that felt he had to move into [social networking] fast."
Bob Bickel, CEO, Ringside Networks Inc.

Your social-network server likely appeals to line-of-business users. Is this the audience you're talking to?
Primarily. We'll talk to a chief marketing officer, for example, or individual groups within a larger company. These people want to establish a more direct connection to their customers, and are looking for ways to leverage the Web to do so. The need for social-networking technologies in enterprises is growing fast. I recently got a cold call from the CEO of a $350 million company that felt he had to move into [social networking] fast. We were one of several companies that the head of brand management for Wal-Mart talked to about social networking.

Yet you also have to sell it to the IT group. How do you do that?
If a group wants to set up our server as a standalone system with its own Web site, IT doesn't have to get involved. But if you want to access an existing customer database, for example, then you need IT. Because of our backgrounds, we've worked extensively with IT groups in the past and we understand their needs.

We're also using an open source model, similar to what we used at JBoss. There are always early adopters, even within large companies, who will embrace a new concept even though it's not approved or supported internally. At JBoss, we had multinational companies that swore open source would never be used internally. Three years later, they were among our biggest customers.

Some traditionalists will say that social-networking technologies are just a fad that will burn out in a few years. How would you respond to that?
Yes, that's an attitude we have to deal with sometimes. But Facebook, to take just one example, has 65 million users, who generate 67 billion page hits on the site in a month. Imagine that. Over 1,000 page hits per user per month. This is not a fad.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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