IBM to turn Sametime IM into a family of products

Big Blue aims to broaden the appeal of Sametime to better compete with unified communications players Microsoft and Cisco

IBM is hoping to broaden the appeal of its Sametime enterprise IM software by expanding the current stand-alone offering into a family of products in a bid to better compete with other unified communications players like Microsoft and Cisco.

Software vendors and telephony companies are betting that customers will rush to adopt unified communications, an emerging technology area they believe will turn into a multi-billion dollar business. Unified communications aims to blur the distinctions between voice, e-mail, IM and video messages, allowing users to access them via a single in-box. When IBM relaunched Sametime about a year ago, the company positioned the IM software as the basis for its unified communications offerings.

Mike Rhodin, general manager of IBM's Lotus division, will announce plans for three new Sametime products on Wednesday during a keynote address at the VoiceCon conference in San Francisco.

The next release of IBM's current Sametime software, which follows on from Sametime 7.5.1, will be known as Sametime Standard 8.0 and is due out towards the end of this year, according to Bruce Morse, IBM's vice president for unified communications software. The new version includes support for Microsoft's Office 2007 desktop suite and the ability to run Sametime server in VMware's virtual environment.

Sametime Entry 8.0 and Sametime Advanced 8.0 debut in the first calendar quarter of 2008.

Sametime Entry takes the IM capabilities already embedded in some IBM products and turns them into a stand-alone offering. The aim is to seed the market and encourage corporate users new to IM to use Entry and later move up to the Standard and Advanced flavors, Morse said. Pricing is not yet set but will be on a per-user basis, he added.

The move is all about combating Microsoft, said E. Brent Kelly, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research LLC. He estimates that about half of IBM's customers use Microsoft's Outlook and Exchange groupware, not IBM's Notes and Domino alternatives. Those users are ones Microsoft would hope to see embrace its enterprise IM as embodied in Office Communications Server 2007, which has just been released to manufacturing. However, the software giant doesn't have a low-end version of OCS, so IBM has the opportunity to try and win new business among corporate users keen to try out basic IM functionality, he said.

Sametime Advanced builds on the Standard version and adds in features like the ability to share one's desktop with others and ways to store and reuse geographic information. The software also includes persistent chat so that a person can log onto their company's group chat and be able to browse what was discussed earlier, particularly useful in the financial services business where staff in different time zones are continually tracking the markets.

The third new member of the Sametime family is still at an early development stage and is known under the working title of "Sametime for Unified Telephony," Morse said.

Analyst Kelly said that IBM has lagged Microsoft and Cisco when it comes to tightly integrating its IM with telephony systems. Instead, IBM has offered separate integration with switches from Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens.

Customer feedback caused IBM to rethink that approach, Morse said. What users said they really wanted was a nonspecific version of Sametime able to run across heterogenous telephony environments. IBM is still working out how to develop the software, which it hopes to ship in the middle of next year. One option is licensing components of OpenScape, a range of unified communications products from Siemens. IBM is in discussions with several companies, but has yet to sign an agreement with anyone.

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