Can IBM Do Telephony?


Last week I wrote at No Jitter: Lotus Foundations RIP. It was a sad one to write, because I thought Lotus Foundations had legs. It was a reasonable best of breed approach for IBM/Lotus fans to get to UC. What I really liked about it was the choice in voice – Mitel, Broadsoft, ShoreTel, and NEC all initially proclaimed support.

But It didn’t work. It had way too many flaws, with the biggest being channel conflicts. Having worked at the OEM, Distributor, and Reseller levels I have tremendous respect for channel clarity. In the case of Lotus Foundations it was a great concept but riddled with channel conflicts. That itself is not so uncommon. Channel problems are very common. The survivors are the ones that identify problems and fix (or at least mitigate) them.

An awful lot has to come together for a successful product, and even more for a successful partnership. IBM is an amazing company. I worked for them as an intern/co-op years ago (back in the days when IBMers wore suits everyday). The company has done some amazing feats – and continues to stay a powerful force in an industry that continues to undergo transformation. IBM understands how to create value for its customers, but every entity has its limits, IBM’s limit may be its ability to do voice. I can think of five attempts and failures.

  1. Lotus Foundations: NEC and ShoreTel were the most impacted, but that’s because Mitel and Broadsoft didn’t move forward. Those four companies are doing fine in voice without IBM – that is, it wasn’t their fault.
  2. IBM Cube: This small office solution was actually terminated because the company decided to bet it all on Lotus Foundations. The Cube was a box with pre-installed software that could be remotely activated per a customers needs. It was positioned as an all in one solution. Partner: Digium.
  3. All in One System i. In 2007, IBM partnered with Nortel to deliver simple UC to small business. The Nortel-IBM System i Unified Communications solution, targeted small to medium businesses (SMBs) and branch offices. The solution promised to integrate IBM’s System i business computing platform and the Lotus Sametime unified communications and collaboration platform with Nortel’s suite of VoIP and multimedia technologies. Another single box approach to UC.
  4. 3Com and IBM Power Systems: This approach to Integrate voice, collaboration and business applications promised to unify communications, streamline business processes and boost customer satisfaction and loyalty. On June 25, 2010, 3Com announced the end of life of the entire 3Com VCX on IBM Power product family which includes the virtualized LPAR all-in-one solution of VCX IP Telephony, A full portfolio of VCX unified communications products remains available from HP for businesses of all sizes.
  5. In 1984, IBM bought Rolm, a well respected F500 PBX maker in anticipation of voice and computer convergence. At one point, Rolm was the third largest phone system maker in the US market. The company was known for its innovation including digital telephony enabling multi-line appearances over a single pair of wires. In 1990, IBM opted out, and sold Rolm to Siemens for about $1 billion less than its purchase price

Searching through Google I see that Avaya and Cisco partnered with IBM on various UC initiatives, but not so much as a UC solution from IBM. So the questions are:

  • Can IBM do Telephony?
  • Should IBM do telephony?
  • Are there IBM successes (or failures) I am missing?
  • Despite all this about convergence, perhaps voice and IT just are not that compatible. I vaguely remember AT&T; selling PCs at one point. If this is true, can Microsoft be successful?

I use “telephony” instead of voice, because I believe IBM has done some research and development in voice technologies, particularly speech recognition. I am unsure if or where those technologies were made available.

Dave Michels