IBM rides the instant messaging wave

With its Lotus Sametime line-up, IBM is attempting to use instant messenging and "unified communications" to reel in new customers from new places, ranging from small businesses to Microsoft Outlook mail environments. Will the strategy pay off?

With new moves in instant messaging and the broader category of "unified communications," IBM is trying to lure customers from outside of its traditional Lotus Notes environment -- and it looks like this approach could be working.

While IBM's Lotus Sametime IM and collaboration software has been available in the market for a decade now, one-third of the customers IBM has picked up over the past year hail from Microsoft Outlook or other non-Notes mail environments, said Adam Gartenberg, IBM senior offering manager for real-time and team collaboration, in an interview with BetaNews.

As might be expected, some of the biggest news coming out of this week's Lotusphere conference is around upcoming enhancements to Notes such as the beta 4 edition of Lotus Symphony, a new crossplatform application development environment for Notes.

But IBM is also spending a lot of time on talking up Lotus Sametime Advanced and Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony, two products first unveiled last summer and now slated for delivery later this year.

"We're seeing very strong interest in IM and real-time collaboration. These are rapidly growing areas," he told BetaNews.

Gartenberg acknowledged that, on the Microsoft side, Sametime competes most directly against Microsoft LCS/OCS (Live Communications Server/Office Communications Server).

But as one big competitive strength, he said, is that Lotus Sametime works in many more operating environments than Microsoft Windows alone.

The Sametime IM client is available for Linux, Apple Macintosh, and Windows. On the server side, Sametime instant messaging can be run in any of those three environments, along with Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, and IBM's i5 operating system.

Like other Sametime offerings, the new Sametime Advanced and Unified Telephony products are aimed directly at internal communications within businesses, as opposed to use among consumers, Gartenberg pointed out.

But, he added, IBM provides both Session Initiation Protocol (SIM) and Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) gateways to let Sametime users do IMing with users of AIM or MSN Messenger, for instance.

Yet seemingly in keeping with a wider effort at IBM to gain greater penetration among small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs), IBM is targeting Sametime at small and large businesses alike.

Also at Lotusphere this week, for example, Lotus is rolling out Lotus Foundations, a Linux-based mail and collaboration platform specifically designed for smaller businesses.

In the IM space, Lotus' new Sametime Advanced product, now scheduled for delivery by the end of March, comes with tools meant to let users quickly start new communities and locate others with expertise in specific areas.

Gartenberg told BetaNews that, inside IBM, a co-worker of his with a technical question about his Blackberry handheld used Sametime Advanced to launch a "Blackberry community," and that the person who posed the question then got a very helpful answer back from another IBM employee within just a couple of minutes.

Sametime Advanced will also include a persistent chat feature -- similar to those already available in some consumer-oriented IM interfaces -- which allows users to return to a chat session even after logging out and then logging back in to IM. The persistent chat feature also keeps a written log of the IM conversation.

Sametime Unified Telephony, on the other hand, is designed for handling phone calls from inside the Sametime instant messaging environment, within businesses that are set up to support this kind of functionality.

Both products make use of "presence," or location, awareness in Sametime. For instance, people working in places where Unified Telephony is installed will be able to establish rules that will route all their phone calls to a cell phone, or that will route incoming calls to a co-worker if their calendars show that they're in a meeting.

Although these capabilities are somewhat similar to those in Jabber and XMPP, for example, Sametime uses its own IM protocol which also supports presence awareness.

"Our presence awareness has been in there from the beginning, for the past ten years," Gartenberg said.

Sametime also provides built-in encryption, a capability that, according to Gartenberg, makes it particularly popular in security-sensitive industries such as banking.

With its Sametime line-up, IBM does seem to be cashing in on some booming markets, since research by some analyst groups is also leading to predictions of high growth. In one recent study, for example, the Radicati Group predicts that revenues from all IM segments will soar from $203 million in 2007 to $530 million in 2011.

Radicati divides the IM market into four different segments: enterprise IM; public IM; IM clients; and IM Management/Security.

In terms of enterprise IM, researchers determined that adoption is being driven by factors that include "immediacy of use" and the "benefits of group collaboration."

The report also finds that major platforms such as Lotus Sametime and Microsoft LCS/OCS are responding to this demand by making instant messaging a "key component of their unified communications strategies."

The Radicati Group has defined "unified communications" as technology that combines voice, messaging, collaboration and presence management capabilities in a way that can be accessed through a single user interface.

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