IBM’s Big Unified Communications News

Recently I spent a good number of hours at the sprawling Somers, NY campus of IBM where the company announced to the media their intention to spend a billion dollars in unified communications development over the next three years. IBM is a major player in the UC space but the company has been getting beaten up in the marketing department by Microsoft. Microsoft is late to the UC game in fact and some of their products are behind IBM. You wouldn’t know any of this from the blitz of a campaign Microsoft is running however.

Simply stated, while spending on R&D is essential, the company will likely have to soon respond to the Microsoft PR and marketing onslaught. This meeting was a very positive first step in my opinion.

In addition, while Microsoft has really done a good job reaching out to the media about their UC offerings, IBM has been quiet. That is until now. The company must have realized what was happening in the market and decided to respond.

During the many meetings I had at IBM, I learned a great deal about the company’s UC strategy. They believe collaborative communities, presence and IM will continue to change the way business operates and moreover they see a real trend towards green business – meaning the virtual workplace will become more real.

The center of this model will be UC and collaboration according to the company once known primarily for its mainframes. They further think they will be a huge part of this market shift by providing a unified user experience and truly open systems. One differentiator IBM is counting on is their integration services division which allows it to truly integrate UC into a multi-platform organization. This integration actually incorporates with business process providing true communications enabled business processes (CEBP). In one example, IBM’s integration solutions allowed a hospital to communicate more effectively, giving patients better and more rapid care.

The company has and will continue to upgrade its collaboration software including Sametime, while concentrating on deploying mobile clients and developing a broad ecosystem of partners.

Some upgrades to Sametime were notable, including persistent chat rooms. In addition, the company now offers something called skills-based presence, allowing interaction with a set of individuals with a specific skill group, not just an individual. This is quite similar to Aspect’s Unified Communications announcement this same week where they too will have skills-based presence built-in.

In addition, we can expect swarming tools allowing people to set notifications if people are discussing a specific topic or if a number of people talking about any topic.

Another differentiator IBM brings to the table is an internal database of router locations allowing your location to be discerned without you having to do anything in particular. Apparently, over the years, the company and its customers seem to have tagged many of the routers which exist in hotels and hotspots.

While sitting in a conference room in IBM’s office, we also got to see an interesting demo of a 3-D environment similar to Second Life where US Intelligence agencies will be gathering to collaborate more effectively.

I did bring up Microsoft as I was looking to learn more about how IBM will differentiate itself and to this the company responded that they are more open than Microsoft. They went on to say Microsoft has stated they want to replace the PBX. They added that IBM does not deliver telephony or multipoint video. I should mention these comments are really aimed at partners as these companies are probably not too thrilled to work with companies looking to take their business away.

IBM itself is a virtual company in that so many of its workers stay at home and as such they have become a great incubator for developing tools which all companies can rely on.

In fact Michael Rhodin, General Manager Lotus Software explained that today, IM is more important to the company than e-mail. He further explained that what the company is doing with UC – allowing it to be an open ecosystem where developers are fee to come up with new applications, is exactly what was done with Lotus Notes.

Rhodin went on to say, "IBM is the world’s greatest petri dish for collaboration software: occurring at CIO, research and Lotus Software Group development team levels."

While there is no need to predict a winner, I should contrast my UC meetings with Microsoft and IBM. Both have similar offerings but IBM is ahead in the SI area while Microsoft is focusing more on things like client devices and wideband codecs. Both companies have solid products according to customers but IBM has a lead in collaboration tools while Microsoft has a huge lead in mindshare.

With a billion dollars in the budget, it seems IBM will be coming out with a host of new and compelling communications products and services over the upcoming years. These new developments should be truly worthy of future writing so stay tuned.

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