Just months before releasing Version 7.5 of its Sametime collaboration suite, IBM has unveiled late-breaking plans to add features, including integration with Microsoft Office XP and connectivity capabilities for a wide range of mobile devices.
In an announcement Monday, IBM said that the move is designed to counter Microsoft's efforts in the same market and to allow corporate users to stay with open-standards compatibility instead of Microsoft's soup-to-nuts approach.
The IBM announcement came on the same day Microsoft spelled out its unified communications product road map, which includes voice, video and messaging capabilities expected to ship next year. Among the products expected in the second quarter of 2007 is Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft's redubbed Live Communications Server. It will include voice-over-IP (VOIP) call management, as well as audio, video, and webconferencing and instant messaging (IM) communication across a variety of devices and applications.
David Marshak, senior product manager for Real Time Collaboration products at IBM's Lotus Software division, said the updates to Sametime 7.5 are aimed at showing customers the different approaches between the two companies.
"Microsoft made some big announcements about what they're doing next year," Marshak said. "We're announcing what we're doing this year," Marshak said. "To us, it's sort of a natural extension of our open platform announcements from earlier this year." He was referring to IBM's Lotusphere conference in January, where the new features in Sametime 7.5 and the product's new Eclipse-based open-standards framework strategy were unveiled, he said.
Sametime 7.5 is slated for release in the third quarter of this year. The added features include integration with Microsoft Outlook 2000, Office XP and SharePoint applications so that Sametime 7.5 features such as sending an IM, making a call, sharing an application or launching a webconference can be done while a user is working in a Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint. In Outlook's e-mail in-boxes, users will be able to view online presence information, schedule webconferences from their calendars and access full Sametime capabilities with one mouse click. The integration features are expected to be released for Sametime at the beginning of 2007.
IBM also will offer direct connectivity to Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Nokia's mobile devices, as well as to mobile devices running Microsoft Windows Mobile operating systems. Business users will be able to access Sametime presence features to see who is available and where they are located, enabling communication through instant messages and voice chats directly from mobile devices. The mobile support will be ready by the end of this year, according to IBM.
"Our competitors in this space are really presenting a 'you have to buy it all from us and make it work' approach. IBM is letting customers choose" to use their existing applications without costly upgrades, Marshak said. "This kind of flexibility and choice is what our customers keep asking for."
Sametime 7.5 will also offer access to public IM networks at no extra charge, as well as audio and video integration through third-party communications providers, including Avaya, Avistar Communicatinos, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Siemens Premiere Global Services, Polycom and Tandberg. The Sametime client is available for Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems.
Analysts said IBM's moves are a good sign for Sametime users because the new features could reinvigorate a product line that shows great promise but has been virtually ignored by the company for some time.
"What's significant about Sametime Version 7.5 is that this is IBM's first significant purposeful reaction to what Microsoft's been doing for the last few years," said Mike Gotta, an analyst at Burton Group. Microsoft has been attacking several collaboration markets, including telephony and IM, in its product offerings over the past several years, while IBM has been letting them languish, he said.
"I think with Version 7.5, it demonstrates kind of the wake-up call, that IBM realizes that convergence is important and is desired by customers," Gotta said.
Integrating the Eclipse system with Sametime to bring open standards and encourage outside development was a good move, he said. "It's good for Eclipse developers who can start looking at at Sametime as an application platform," which will encourage more possibilities, said Gotta.
But Gotta is skeptical of IBM's decision to leave the audio, video and IP telephony integration in the hands of third-party partners rather than building those capabilities into Sametime, as Microsoft is doing with its collaboration products.
"I think they're doing it to draw a distinction against Microsoft as opposed to what's best for their clients," he said. "I'm not sure it will work long-term. It leaves IBM dependent on the activities of partners who haven't proven that they can deliver applications as quickly or as well as IBM."
Another issue is the need for more detail on how IBM plans to integrate Sametime with Office XP and other Microsoft products. "There needs to be much more information provided along with specific patterns of integration on the client as well as with SharePoint," Gotta wrote in his blog (http://mikeg.typepad.com/).
Matt Brown, an analyst at Forrester Research, said IBM's push to make Sametime open-standards-based will be attractive to customers who want to marry different parts from different vendors to build their IT infrastructures. "That's a pretty significant part of the announcement," Brown said. "They're drawing the line there. For Microsoft, that's not part of their story."
One thing prospective customers will find intriguing, he said, is that IBM plans to support the three mobile communications frameworks, as opposed to Microsoft's focus on Windows Mobile. "Companies are going to find it very compelling when you're looking at an IBM perspective" for mobile users, Brown said. "It's a frontal assault on Microsoft, on the same day that Microsoft announced its unified communications strategy," he said.