Analysis: IBM to integrate UC into Symphony

Unified communications threatens to gobble up desktop productivity apps as companies look to weaken Microsoft Office's dominance

Given a level playing field, can anyone unseat Microsoft as the king of productivity applications? This is just one of many questions numerous companies, from Google to IBM to Sun, are trying to answer as they cram more and more capabilities into rival productivity solutions.

This week, IBM fired another shot across Microsoft's bow in announcing that Symphony, Big Blue's productivity suite announced last month, will integrate with Sametime, its collaboration and unified communications solutions.

While IBM's public relations department likes to make it sound like a charitable gift to the world -- the statement read in part, "IBM is helping businesses of all sizes break free from costly licensing and renewal fees associated with office productivity tools" -- its real goal is the same as Microsoft's: Dominance in an expanding UC market.

A market that is consolidating communications, collaboration, and office productivity onto a single platform, according to Don Van Doren, principal at UniComm Consulting.

IBM's prepared statement went on to explain that users will no longer have to "rely" on Microsoft office applications for integration with unified communications solutions, including instant messaging, VoIP, and conferencing.

Sametime's collaboration and UC capabilities already integrate into Office, a must-have requirement but also a fact that must stick in the craw of Big Blue executives. Now it will integrate with IBM's own productivity offering.

However, according to Akiba Saeedi, program director for Unified Communications and Collaboration at IBM, Sametime's capabilities go deeper than Office integration.

"Office isn't the only app in the enterprise. Sametime can integrate with and presence-enable SAP, Siebel, or portal applications and expand them into a voice conversation or an exchange of data," said Saeedi.

While most analysts agree that it is unlikely any major enterprise will rip and replace Office with Symphony, Google Apps, or Star Office, these moves by Big Blue, Google, Sun, and others give users more choice and may serve to keep Microsoft on its competitive toes.

What we are really seeing is UC capabilities coming into play within a business context, especially as developers embed presence into the workflow of a process, according to Van Doren.

However, Van Doren believes the UC providers are marketing the idea of presence incorrectly.

Instead of saying a manager can save a few minutes by avoiding calls to unavailable co-workers, presence should be advanced as a way to reduce approval processes by days.

"Rather than leaving a voice mail and putting aside the work folder until a manager gets a colleague with domain expertise to answer a question -- which could take days -- with presence, the workflow will find another expert who is available to answer the question," said Van Doren.

And, due to the confluence of social networking in a business context, the idea of presence is already changing. Instead of presence being thought of as an expanded buddy list, business users are discovering that it can be used to find someone with a particular skill set even if they don't know the co-worker personally.

In related news, Microsoft will announce two new components to its unified communications platform, Office Communicators Server 2007 for the backend and Office Communicator 2007 for the client side.

Lotus Sametime integration with Lotus Symphony is expected to ship in the first half of 2008.

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