Social Blue


IBM is an impressive company – It has lived through more computational generations than any other. The company doesn’t have the fan base of say an Apple, or the fight evil of Google – but it does have impressive credentials with enterprise computing.  Next week, in Orlando, is LotusSphere. It’s a huge event that takes over the Swan and Dolphin complex.

IBM marches to the beat of its own UC drum. It offers Sametime, a presence solution sans voice. Sametime is positioned as a front-end to the call manager and has developed supported partnerships with multiple premises based voice vendors and Broadsoft.

While the lack of direct voice technology may seem a major omission, there is some logic to it. Basically, IBM figures voice is a commodity and can and should be provided by whatever is cheapest, installed, or architecturally aligned. By using Sametime as the front-end (softphone, phone control, dialing, etc.) an enterprise can achieve a consistent user experience without having to rip and replace lots of equipment. This approach adds some unusual challenges. For one, partnerships change. IBM has featured both Digium and Mitel as partners in the past which don’t seem to be viable current partnerships. Another factor is competitors don’t make the best partners – Avaya, ShoreTel, and Cisco may integrate with Sametime, but all have their own ideas about collaboration and mobility.

IBM Foundations was an attempt to create an SMB appliance ready to go with Sametime and voice from NEC, ShoreTel, or Mitel. The product was discontinued in 2010 before it got much traction. There were numerous problems – SMB didn’t make a lot of sense for the target, and channel conflicts were a problem. Foundations had already displaced IBM’s SmartCube which featured an Asterisk voice solution from Digium. IBM has a very spotty track record when it comes to voice.

Sametime brings its own unique value proposition to the UC party. IBM tends to be in larger organizations and its list of references is very impressive. Household names, life and death types of organizations, military and government facilities, and so on. These larger enterprises have unique needs – well beyond the iPhone app of the day. For example, last year’s Superbowl host used Sametime to integrate with public service and safety two way radios.

Sametime and Notes are often lumped together, but the reality is Sametime doesn’t need Notes – it can work with a variety of email platforms and IBM is well aware that Notes isn’t the darling that it once was. But if you think about it, Notes itself was an early form of collaboration – they called it Groupware back then and it was revolutionary. IBM isn’t sure what to do with the term “Lotus” – it is well known – but dated. The company renamed Lotus Connections to IBM connections, but its big shindig next week is still LotusSphere.

But the ace that IBM has up its sleeve is social – namely IBM Connections. IBM is betting heavily on social and it will be a huge theme of LotusSphere this year (again). IBM believes social networking will be replacing UC as the communications driver. It is offering Connections in both hosted and premises configurations – and has seen its own internal communications structure and processes radically change thanks to Connections.

To best prepare for LotusSphere, you may want to take a look at my recent interview with Charlie Hill – CTO of Social Stuff at IBM. the interview was a little shorter than the others as Charlie was busy preparing for LotusSphere. But I will say that Charlie comes across as someone who definitely gets this stuff. He’s in that group of IBMers that I consider wow smart. But what is even more compelling about LotusSphere than IBM’s news is the partner news. Last year, I think RIM took more stage time than IBM. I doubt that will be true this year. IBM has an impressive partner ecosystem and extensibility is the name of the current UC game. There should be quite a bit to see and hear at this event.

Dave Michels