IBM plans to launch in the second half of this year an API (application programming interface) for linking the Lotus Sametime enterprise instant messaging product to VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) platforms, mobile phones and traditional office telephony systems.
The API is being used currently by a small number of partners who are working on early voice applications for Sametime, and IBM expects to make the API generally available to developers in 2005's third or fourth quarter, said Ken Bisconti, vice president of IBM Workplace products.
"At this point, it has mostly been used in development of applications that haven't yet shipped to market," Bisconti said. "I expect that later this year you will see voice-enabled applications running on Sametime."
The API has been designed to be used by independent software vendors, by providers of telephony equipment and services, such as network equipment vendors, wireless carriers and telecom service providers, and by corporate developers within IT departments of Sametime clients.
Although there hasn't been widescale integration of instant messaging platforms and telephony networks yet, it is a developing trend and IBM is responding to it, he said. "We're definitely moving in that direction and believe it is a very natural convergence that will be seen in the industry. The biggest question is how rapidly it will be adopted," Bisconti said.
When telephony is integrated with instant messaging, users get a more complete picture of someone's availability because the system can indicate whether that person is on the phone. Instant messaging systems can also typically be configured to allow users to generate calls to others on their instant messaging contact lists from the instant messaging interface.
In the case of Sametime, it's a welcome sign to see IBM attempting to make it easy for external developers and partners to extend the platform, an analyst said.
"One thing that makes this (IBM move) significant is that Sametime is not an easy platform for third parties to link with," said Andrew W. Davis, a managing partner at market analysis firm Wainhouse Research. "So the development and publication of an API kit would be a significant advance for IBM and for a variety of potential third-party partners."
Demand from corporate clients for integrating their instant messaging systems with their telephony infrastructure has been overstated but it is increasing, so IBM does well to focus on this area, Davis said. "Demand is somewhat overhyped by the vendors and the press. Until now, there has been much more excitement about the technology and its potential to change way businesses work (than actual deployments.) But demand is building and it will emerge. I just don't think it will be as fast as some people believe."
There is particular interest in instant messaging integration with VOIP infrastructures specifically, said Michael Osterman, president of industry analysis company Osterman Research. "Organizations are looking at voice over IP as a way of reducing telecommunications costs, providing additional services, making it easier to support remote users and so forth," he said. "The most logical way to do that is through the instant messaging interface."
In a recent study of VOIP enterprise trends in North America, Osterman Research found that currently only about 10 percent of employees use VOIP, but by late 2007 the adoption is expected to increase to 45 percent. Most of the organizations surveyed said they will want to integrate VOIP with their enterprise messaging systems.
Sametime, whose formal name is Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, has between 11 million and 12 million users, plus an additional 10 million to 15 million users who have some Sametime capabilities, such as presence awareness and instant messaging, available within their Notes messaging and collaboration environment, IBM's Bisconti said.
Sametime's main competitor is Microsoft's Live Communications Server, which is also gaining telephony support with the upcoming release of its new Istanbul client component. Istanbul, which now goes by the official name Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, is slated to ship within the next 80 days or so, a spokesman for Microsoft said.