Unified communications war will heat up in 2009

IBM and Microsoft gearing up for a big year in unified communications.

The unified communications war between Microsoft and IBM has so far been pretty one-sided, with the giant from Redmond having the publicity edge over Big Blue.

Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator client made big waves in the industry compared to IBM's Lotus Sametime 8.0 conferencing and collaboration suite, which has been selling steadily.

That may change in 2009 with two notable releases software from two of the biggest names in the industry.

The week of January 18, IBM is expected to -- finally -- release Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony at the annual Lotusphere conference. SUT, middleware that links Sametime and third party PBXs, had been promised to be out months ago.

A month later Microsoft will release R2 of Office Communications Server with a number of features desired by enterprises, particularly a softphone attendant console.

Much has been written about OCS R2, but little about the upcoming Sametime and the upcoming SUT.

Outwardly, the two products have different target audiences: While designed to work with office phone exchanges, Microsoft hopes OCS will eventually replace PBXs from communications manufacturers such as Nortel, Cisco Systems and Avaya. IBM insists its strategy is to have Sametime enhance third party PBXs, not replace them.

But industry analysts -- and IBM officials -- say that if customers want Sametime to get into a PBX war, it is prepared to do so.

In fact, says Brent Kelly, Salt Lake City, Utah-based analyst who runs the unified communications practice at Wainhouse Research, IBM may have to.

"Sametime is really under threat from Office Communications Server," he said in an interview. Microsoft is aggressively going after the PBX market, he said - perhaps not with this release, but when OCS R3 hits the market as expected in 2010 more organizations will take it seriously. He believes IBM will have to respond by adding telephony features to Sametime.

For now, IBM believes Sametime has enough features to please most users, said David Marshak, the company's senior product manager for unified communications. That includes a client with voice over IP, up to five-way audio and point-to-point video. UC capabilities include click-to-call, click-to-conference and instant messaging links to other applications. However, while it links to third party platforms, it cannot connect to more than one.

Sametime Unified Telephony will let organizations with PBXs from several vendors abstract their capabilities into a single set of services that are available in the Sametime suite. SUT will also expand Sametime's capabilities by adding richer presence.

"This middleware approach allows customers to leverage their investments in IP telephony while gaining a very strong unified communications experience," said Marshak.

Customers "strongly" tell IBM they don't want to be forced to limit their communications suppliers to one vendor, he added.

Sametime Unified Telephony, which will allow enterprises to preserve their PBX investments, "is clearly going to play well with the Sametime crowd, and should play well with those with heterogeneous environments," said Kelly.

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On the other hand, both companies rely on partners to fill out certain telephony or UC needs. For the time being, for example, IBM doesn't plan to build call routing and switching capabilities into Sametime, Wainhouse noted in a report at the beginning of the year.

One big difference, of course, is that Sametime supports multiple operating systems and LDPA directories, while OCS runs only on Windows Server.

Asked if IBM is trying to make Sametime into an enterprise PBX, Marshak said no. "Our customers do not want us to do that." But, he added, if customers change their minds "we have every ability to do so."

Kelly agrees, noting Sametime Unified Telephony is based on Siemens Enterprise Communications' OpenScape unified technology platform, which includes most of the logic of a PBX. "So if IBM wanted to unwrap some of the layers, it wouldn't be a difficult stretch of the imagination to say they could compete head to head with Microsoft."

However, Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, cautions that buyers haven't decided yet whether they want software-based communications suites running on commodity hardware from companies like IBM and Microsoft, or appliance-based solutions from companies like Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent.

"IBM has an army of professional services to back it up, which makes it one of the tougher competitors (for Microsoft) in the enterprise," he said.

On the other hand, Cisco's integrated platform "in some ways makes it even tougher."