IBM/Lotus sharpens weapon for unified communications battle

IBM/Lotus Sametime at heart of strategy; Vendor committing $1 billion to develop platform

IBM/Lotus is banking on the integration of its Sametime platform and collaboration software with tools from telephony partners to fuel its climb up the ranks of unified communications contenders.

The company's strategy is to marry collaboration, social networking, conferencing and messaging software, which feature open protocols and interfaces, with telephony wares from partners such as Cisco, Nortel and Avaya to create a unified communications (UC) platform that corporations can integrate with their current infrastructure and Web services projects.

Integration and standards support are hallmarks of the platform that features voice, e-mail, instant messaging, presence and videoconferencing.

The model is much different from traditional rival Microsoft, which eventually hopes to supplant telephony vendors by re-inventing the PBX in software. And it is different from Cisco, which partners with IBM/Lotus but is taking a more network approach to UC.

IBM/Lotus, on the other hand, has drawn a line of demarcation and is developing a gateway that invites telephony vendors and other partners into its UC lineup, which is anchored by Sametime and includes the Sametime client, Notes messaging, Connections social software, Quickr document management and Lotus Symphony productivity applications.

To prove its commitment, Steve Mills, the senior vice president of IBM's software group, said in March that the company will spend US$1 billion on its UC strategy over the next three years.

It may take such a war chest to overcome major challenges. IBM/Lotus must fight market dynamics that now favor Microsoft's platform centered on Office Communications Server (OCS), clearly define its feature differences and architectural advantages, and penetrate companies that already have an affinity for rival software.

Playing from behind

That penetration is sort of a "do-over" for IBM/Lotus.

Sametime is 10 years old and at one time was the only option for enterprise instant messaging and presence. But IBM/Lotus took its lead for granted and the platform languished between 2003 and 2005.

When Microsoft began detailing and developing what was to become OCS 2007, IBM finally flinched.

"That was the sound of Jaws [theme music] playing," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group, referring to the music in the 1975 movie that signaled impending doom perpetrated by a great white shark hungry for unsuspecting swimmers.

In January 2007, IBM/Lotus announced its UC2 (pronounced UC squared) strategy around Sametime to signal it was again ready to play.

Before the end of 2008, IBM/Lotus will ship what will become its UC centerpiece.

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