IBM to accelerate mobile unified communications

IBM plans mobile collaboration offensive to keep Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya at bay

Keeping Microsoft and Cisco in its sights, IBM is planning to introduce variety of collaboration tools for mobile platforms where it wants to create full-featured unified communications endpoints and become the mobile collaboration vendor of choice.

Microsoft Exchange in the Cloud: Four Migration TipsInitially these mobile tools will enable calling features that, for example, determine the least expensive mode for making a phone call, but that will be expanded to include the full range of IBM collaboration and conferencing features, said Alistair Rennie, general manager of IBM Lotus During an interview at IBM's new and sprawling software development facility in Littleton, Mass. With the most recent release of Lotus SameTime Unified Communications collaboration software last week, the platform now supports Blackberry 5.0 and Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 clients.

As it accelerates its mobile plans, IBM expects to exploit its already extensive interoperability with other platforms including its major competitor in UC -- Microsoft. Its mobile support will also challenge competitor Avaya and its mobile clients. Over time, as businesses deploy 4G handhelds, IBM will fully support mobile collaboration "on the mobile device of choice" and treat the collaboration features as services, not a stack of available features but an always-available set of tools, Rennie said.

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He expects customers will adopt SameTime for mobile devices via its cloud-based collaboration suite LotusLive, starting with a core of instant messaging, presence, Web meetings and some video. That will grow over time to include voice integration with corporate directories as well as full video services.

Rennie also said the company would respond to customer demand for appliances that can be used to more easily bring collaboration tools into their networks, much the same way that they can add security platforms to their networks via IBM security appliances.

IBM is also building a downloadable, browser-based plug-in so anyone can join SameTime conferences even if their machines lack SameTime clients. Later this capability will be deployed from LotusLive clouds so, for example, a bank could call a conference to talk to high-value customers and have them participate with relative ease, said Rob Ingram, IBM senior product manager for UC. The clients are already available for Web conferencing and IM, and the browser-based client for video is scheduled for the first quarter of 2011. After that the company may look into a mobile browser-based client as well, he said.

Meanwhile, the company is working with videoconferencing vendors to build adapters to communicate with IBM video infrastructure so, for example, IBM desktop video participants could join conferences anchored by Polycom videoconferencing gear, he said. The user case they're working on is collaboration with business partners who might not have IBM videoconferencing infrastructure, Ingram said. The list of those participating includes Cisco and Polycom but not Cisco's Tandberg gear or HP conferencing.

Even as he looks ahead to mobile collaboration, Rennie noted that businesses over the past 18 months have altered their view of UC, which blends presence and various modalities of real-time communication -- IM, phone calls, video -- with collaboration tools integrated with calendaring and corporate directories, and non-real-time communication such as texting and e-mail. Elements of IBM's UC offerings include Notes/Domino for messaging and calendaring; Lotus Connections for social collaboration; Lotus Quickr for team collaboration; SameTime for Unified Telephony; Lotus Live for on-premise or cloud collaboration. Avaya, Cisco Microsoft, Siemens and others rank among major competitors.

Whereas customers may have regarded UC as a package of tools that could be bought and installed, they now look at specific business processes, such as order fulfillment, from a desktop perspective rather than as a back-end resource, Rennie said. UC might have been deployed before for a siloed purpose such as a tool for contact-center agents, but now businesses see it with wider applications, he said.

CFOs, for instance can see the cost-saving benefits of enabling a business-analytics dashboard that pushes through work to the next stage by notifying the right person to handle it and pulling together conferences when needed. "We call it collaboration-enabled business processes," Rennie said.

Such an idea is in contrast to just promoting attractive UC features, such as finding people in a directory with appropriate skills for a task and whose presence information shows they are available in the right modality and then clicking on their name to reach them. That is the way IBM has been selling UC in the past, and that needed to change, says Don Van Doren, a principal with Unicomm Consulting.

"You can use the quick-to-communicate stuff," Van Doren says. "It's useful, but it doesn't touch the central concepts of unified communications and impact how companies can function differently. You need to get to the business guys and say there's a business-process bottleneck that costs them two days out of every business development cycle." And then show how UC can remove the bottleneck. But the task is daunting because that means pulling in top executives and line-of-business managers to help make the technology decisions with the IT staff, Van Doren says.

Even with that challenge, IBM is aligned to do well in battling its primary competitor, Microsoft, he says. Other UC vendors such as Cisco and Avaya come from the telephony end of communications, and he feels that software vendors with control of desktop software have the edge. One of IBM's strengths is that it already has desktop productivity software widely deployed in corporate networks where users are comfortable with it. And it is interoperable with Microsoft platforms, he says, making it possible to use products they have already bought. Specifically, IBM's strategy to enable putting IBM SameTime presence inside Microsoft's Outlook and SharePoint, making it attractive to businesses that have already invested in the Microsoft technologies, he says.

Van Doren also ranks IBM as being far ahead in its social networking software for business with Lotus Connections tied into presence and with its capabilities for mining information within the corporate network to enhance finding the right people for specific tasks. "They've been working on this four or five years," he says. "Cisco is just starting to do it."

IBM also seems to be opening up its platforms more to third-party developers, he says. UC needs ecosystems that independent developers can work in, and Van Doren thinks IBM may be getting to that point. Earlier, the company seemed to want to make releases rock solid before opening up to partners, but it may serve the company better to be more open to third-party developers sooner. "It's a much better strategy to get [products] out there with more people finding things that need to be fixed. The winner will be the company that opens up and supports best their ecosystem." 

Has IBM turned a corner? "Man, I hope so. We need another strong player in this industry," Van Doren says.

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