IBM Aims to Burst Microsoft’s Office Communications Bubble

With Microsoft poised to unleash its next collaboration and unified communication (UC) suite next week, rival IBM is launching a preemptive strike by promising a tight level of integration between its own UC platform and its new, free Lotus Symphony productivity suite.

IBM said Sametime customers would soon be able to share and collaborate on presentations, word processing and spreadsheets created in Lotus Symphony, the company’s suite of free business applications released last month. Those users will also be able to conference using Sametime’s on-premises Web conferencing app or IBM’s recently acquired Web-based conferencing application, Lotus Sametime Unyte.

“Office isn’t the only application in the enterprise,” Akiba Saeedi, director of IBM’s Unified Communications and Collaboration division, told “We want to offer customers more choices.”

Lotus Symphony’s integration with Sametime versions 8.0 and higher may not arrive until some point during the first half of next year, however. Touting the news early is designed to steal a bit of Microsoft’s thunder comes in advance of Tuesday, when the software giant will launch its much-touted Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS).

Along with its Office Communicator client and Office Live Meeting service, the OCS launch will mark Redmond’s most extensive foray into the UC arena. Office Communications Server 2007 will add Voice over IP to the IM and collaboration features the company had previously marketed as its Live Communications Server.

Microsoft has said the intent is for companies to use OCS for instant messaging and collaboration while being able to retain their existing PBX systems, if they desire. OCS can integrate with these legacy systems as well, in some cases enabling employees to have incoming calls routed simultaneously to both their VoIP- and landlines.

IBM has other ideas, of course. During an interview with, Akiba Saeedi, director of IBM’s Unified Communications and Collaboration division, said Big Blue may be gunning for similar synergies but it takes a different approach.

“We believe in openness and open standards for our partners and for customers,” Saeedi said, referring to Lotus Symphony’s support for open source and standards — which come by dint of the productivity’s suite’s basis on code. It’s also free.

“That’s fundamentally different from Microsoft, which is taking a proprietary approach,” she added. “We see huge opportunity to bring different types of data together and simplify it from an end-user perspective. Whether they admit it publicly or not, Microsoft want to force licensing on companies to integrate third-party devices.”

Saeedi acknowledged that the IBM’s Sametime-Symphony announcement comes as a move to beat Microsoft’s OCS to the punch, describing the timing as “an umbrella to talk about the differences” between the two companies’ unified communications strategies.

Increasing stakes in the unified communications game

Expect to see more of this kind of one-upsmanship in the weeks and months to come as enterprise software and telephony vendors seek to differentiate themselves in the emerging unified communications (UC) and real-time collaboration markets.

Now that enterprise desktops and datacenters are saturated with enterprise communication applications — like e-mail, instant messaging, Web and video conferencing and document collaboration — top-tier vendors are looking for ways to edge out the competition. Increasingly, that’s meant a focus on convincing enterprise and small- and mid-sized businesses (SMB) to invest billions in additional software that ties all these disparate communication applications together.

“Industries need something to latch on to, and they need to have a theme,” Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics Research, said in an interview with “And right now, unified communications is that theme.”

“IBM’s announcement today fits into the overall trend we’re seeing where most of these vendors are working on integrating all these different products to one-up the competition,” Machowinski said.

At the moment, Microsoft is the space’s undisputed leader, according to Gartner’s oft-cited Magic Quadrant report, followed by Cisco due in large part to its $3.2 billion acquisition of WebEx in March, along with Nortel, IBM, Alcatel-Lucent and Avaya.

Despite all the attention and investments these companies have made, businesses only spent about $363 million on unified communications applications in 2006, according to Infonetics Research. However, the market is expected grow between 25 percent and 30 percent each year through 2010, making it a roughly $700 million sector within three years.

While e-mail and instant messaging have become almost indispensable in the enterprise, Machowinski said the vast majority of IT organizations have yet to integrate the two. For instance, workers could be making voice-over-IP phone calls by clicking a link within their Outlook client, he said.

Similarly, IT departments could enable users to unify their IM accounts — from public services like those from AOL, Yahoo or MSN — into one corporate-sanctioned identity, although this happens only rarely in businesses today. Still fewer offer workers the tools to incorporate all these fancy document collaboration or Web and video conferencing applications into their existing workflows.

That’s a reality that Microsoft, IBM and the rest of the UC pack will be struggling to overcome with the release of their new platforms. At the same time, naturally, they’ll also be aiming to overcome each other.

Still, IBM’s strategy has its doubters. Machinowski, for instance, said IBM’s effort to integrate its applications with Sametime — just as competitors have done in Microsoft Office or Google Apps Premiere — strikes him as a ploy unlikely to have a large pay-off for the company.

“To me, it’s not of the essence,” he said. “It’s good functionality and makes sense but I wouldn’t consider it the cornerstone of a UC strategy. In my mind, what really matters is how you combine the core communications processes like mobility, phone, video and messaging.

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