Between a desk and a pervasive place

Until now, voice was largely missing from the enterprise collaboration and pervasive computing discussion. But with the convergence of open standards and the wireless build out, IBM Software is attempting to wrap voice into the Lotus evolution.

At January's Lotusphere in Orlando, Florida, a demonstration of the forthcoming Sametime Everyplace 3 instant messenger client integrated with the Collaboration Center portal offered an insight into the complexities of actually using voice.

Sametime Everyplace sees instant messaging pushed out to mobile clients. Presence information is visible to other users, courtesy of a small cell phone image next to the users' screen name. However, the executive conducting a demo for me let slip a telling comment. Should somebody be traversing their portal and see that you're available, thanks to the little cell phone icon, "it would of course be easier to pick up the phone," he says.

Despite the opportunity to leverage a host of text-based services, the inference is that you will use presence information before making a call, rather than treating voice as a truly integrated channel.

Intrigued by these first examples of IBM's pervasive computing strategy, I interviewed Mike Rhodin, vice president of development at IBM's Pervasive Computing Division, who, not coincidentally, was at Lotusphere.

His thesis is based on a problem. We have yet to innovate beyond the inadequacies of the GUI that Apple popularized and Windows exploited. Voice is the missing data input component, Rhodin argues, and integrating voice commands into environments such as the portal will help users take full advantage of handheld devices. It's time to leave our traditional menu-based approach to selecting functions behind.

Rhodin might be right, but if the voice-led revolution in collaboration and the UI is coming, it's not coming tomorrow.

Yet by the same token, Lotus' business partners such as Captaris continue to develop speech products. "Speech will be the paradigm that drives unified communications," asserts Michael Grady, Captaris' vice president of business development.

But the catch with unified communications is that it will rely on a unified Web services architecture, and that's where the Java and .Net camps collide.

Grady is not ready to cast his vote with either camp, and neither were other customers and ISVs I spoke with at the show. "Ultimately, they have got to get out of the closed Domino architecture," says Jean Thibodeau, vice president of Information Systems at engineering group Canam Manac in Boucherville, Canada.

Enter the Next Generation strategy announced at Lotusphere by IBM Lotus' General Manager Ambuj Goyal. Symbolized by two converging highways, the left highway represents Lotus Domino's old, proprietary ways, while the right highway stands for the world of open standards. The first product targeted at the latter is the forthcoming launch of NextGen Mail, a Web messaging client supported by WebSphere and J2EE on the back end.

Given that Goyal told me the two highways are already converged around open standards, to what extent will Rhodin's vision for voice reshape IBM's roadmap while the Windows and Internet Explorer UI continue to define the user experience?

IBM might be correct that voice is going to reshape the way we view collaboration, but Big Blue is only in the early stages of understanding how to build platforms to support it.

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