It has been a long and hectic week here at Lotusphere. Meetings, sessions and the exhibition floor have impacted my time to post on the event in any qualitative manner until now. For those waiting for IBM to kick-off its unified communications strategy then this event can be put down as the starting point. Until now, the message from IBM was more oriented towards real-time collaboration with some UC aspects but nothing more cohesive until this week where IBM provided some glimpses into how it will approach the market and differentiate itself from Microsoft.
IBM announced a “point release” (Sametime 7.5.1) this week at Lotusphere which will ship in 2Q07 providing a news event and subsequent opportunity to broaden the conversation from real-time collaboration to unified communications. Sametime 7.5.1 will offer some interesting enhancements. I especially like the “tabbed chat” metaphor which significantly improves the manageability and user experience around multiple chat conversations (single window with easy navigation between dialogs. Improved integration with Microsoft Office applications (including Outlook) was another capability added to the upcoming release. Improved integration with a Microsoft-centric desktop is essential for Sametime to counter Microsoft Office Communicator and how LCS currently provides presence and other services to desktop applications. Linux server support will be attractive for organizations committed to that platform as will the addition of Mac client support.
More importantly, Lotusphere also included a mini-keynote on unified communications that helped provide attendees with an overview of its strategy and commitment in this area. That commitment includes dedicated senior leadership. Bruce Morse, vice president of the Lotus unified communications, is now focused on putting IBM on equal competitive footing with Microsoft. The first volley was to define a new tag-line “unified communications and collaboration” or “UC squared”. The theme here was to emphasize that unified communications needs to have a point – to be purposeful in what technology convergence should enable organizations to do better – not just linear productivity improvements but to facilitate emergence of new work models and improved process performance through collaborative applications that are now communication-enabled.
While the keynote was more high-level, it provided a necessary overview and grounding for attendees that might not be well-versed with the unified communications market and business opportunity – there were no hard shots taken at the competition. Appropriate for the venue but I believe IBM needs to come out much more strongly over the next several weeks to build on the message established here this week.
Specifically, I expect IBM will differentiate itself in a couple of important ways:
- IBM will paint Microsoft as the “director” of a unified communications solution where it plays the role more of a “packager” of a UC solution
- IBM will portray Microsoft as a rip-and-replace strategy where existing audio and video providers will be pushed aside as Microsoft attempts to deliver a broadly horizontal platform that favors its own tools
- IBM will “draw a line in the sand” as it has with applications by leaving communications (IP telephony and such) to its partners while it focuses on its core middleware infrastructure and collaboration platform
- IBM will play the standards angle hard concerning SIP/SIMPLE and XMPP and point out the weakness in Microsoft’s use of CSTA, customized protocols and extensions as well as difficulty with third-party integration and interoperability (e.g., presence aggregation) versus its own Sametime platform
- As a “packager” IBM will consistently highlight the build-out of its partner ecosystem and the wide-choice organizations will have in choosing their preferred communications provider
- Finally, IBM will focus on building out a developer community around Sametime highlighting its Eclipse-based plug-in model
Microsoft should not take IBM’s efforts here lightly. I sense a different level of excitement on the part of vendor partners and some advantages in IBM’s approach (especially the developer model) versus Microsoft. Make no mistake, Microsoft is in a very strong position and has played its cards extremely well over the past three years. But the door is not yet closed and IBM has come a long way in just a year or so. Gaps do remain however that IBM needs to address:
- There was no mentioned of where IBM wants to go concerning unified messaging
- Few details were provided on the modernization effort needed on the Sametime back-end (similar to what happened with the client with Sametime 7.5)
- Little information was provided on where IBM intends to go with a hosted model for Sametime (to counter Microsoft Office Live Meeting)
Overall, this will be quite the competitive battle over the next few years. The wild card will be Cisco and how deeply it will, or will not, partner with IBM. Other wild card players include of course Avaya (with an interesting acqusition of Ubiquity), perhaps Adobe to some extent and Oracle if it ever wakes up to the UC market opportunity.