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IBM's Investment in Unified Communications Is Paying Off

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Large companies are signing up to equip their employees and partners with integrated communication solutions based on IBM Lotus Sametime.

 

With all of this software that IBM now offers, one might wonder what the hottest-selling title is? The answer may be a surprise to many when they learn it is IBM Lotus Connections used for business social networking. Knowing that, it may not seem so surprising that IBM Lotus Sametime is the number one instant messaging software used by corporations today.

 

Clearly, unified communications is beginning to catch on at corporations around the world. Last month's announcement that the large Global Hyatt Corp. and the 300,000-employee ACI Worldwide both have chosen to roll out IBM Lotus Sametime next year is not only a feather in IBM's cap, but it says that unified communications is developing a momentum among large corporations.

 

Global Hyatt Corp. will use Sametime V8 as the software platform to allow communications among co-workers and between the company and its vendors and suppliers. The hotelier has 365 managed, operated, and franchised hotels in 45 countries. ACI Worldwide, a leading international provider of electronic payment software, will roll out a range of IBM software and services, including Sametime, to its employee base, 30,000 of whom already are using Sametime, Lotus Notes, and Domino to send instant messages, check email, and keep up with their calendars.

 

IBM, of course, with its employee population of some 380,000, is among the largest users of Lotus Sametime. Employees engage in more than 10 million instant messaging conversations per day and some 30,000 online conferences per month as well as thousands of VOIP and on-screen video transmissions. Employees have formed 1,800 online communities with over a million messages.

 

What is driving the move toward unified communications? The proven cost reductions that it can bring to a corporation in the form of lower phone bills and faster times to market for products are the main drivers. IBM is saving some $17 million a year in phone charges alone. Other companies--such as a major European bank that is saving $4.5 million (€3.5 million) a year in telephone costs--are also able to display sizable returns on their investment. A division of Colgate-Palmolive used IBM Lotus Sametime to link together some 6,000 of its business partners and employees to create virtual focus groups and achieved approximately a 50 percent reduction in new-product development time.

 

Bruce Morse, IBM Lotus vice president of unified communications and collaboration software, recently gave a keynote address at VoiceCon in San Francisco in which he stressed the productivity benefits of unified communications at the user level. Many organizations today are implementing VOIP as a back-end infrastructure upgrade to reduce telephone costs. Morse argues however that the true benefits of unified communications come from productivity gains users achieve by integrating all their communications channels into one interface.

 

''There has been a fair amount of neglect on the user side, and many of the tools are still delivered in the unique or different user interfaces so that the user ends up suffering from communication and collaboration overload,'' Morse said. Tying together a variety of different communication channels or tools such as instant messaging, video, voice, email, and Web conferencing into a single integrated environment and unified user experience can cut down considerably on communication delays, he says.

 

VOIP, while oftentimes a helpful underlying technology for unified communications, isn't necessarily a pre-condition for integrating communications tools. While Microsoft would have you believe that the private branch exchange (PBX) business telephone system is antique and on its way out, IBM is happy to retain a company's legacy system and implement a unified communications layer on top of it.

 

''In the economic environment that we're in right now,'' says Morse, ''a lot of customers I met in the last 60 days are really starting to rethink their big projects and trying to figure out where they're going to cut back on investment and how they're going to get through 2009. One of the things I emphasize is that we don't force people to rip out and replace a lot of their existing telephony and IT infrastructure in order to participate in unified communications. You don't even need to be using Lotus Notes,'' he says.

 

Future trends for unified communications will be revealed this January at Lotusphere 2009, January 18-22, in Orlando, Florida, but Morse gave a few hints of where the industry is going. Integrated voice and video and Web conferencing, as opposed to using a telephone for the audio channel, is one clear direction. Sametime V8.5 will be announced at the show with some new command and control features that will permit IT administrators to deploy limited desktop video without risking crashing the network. Administrators will be able to control how much of the network is consumed and assign priorities to individual users who have video.

 

You will be able to click a button and immediately launch a Web conference that includes audio, and you will also be able to create ''persistent meeting rooms'' where each user can have multiple meeting rooms that they can assign to topics or projects on which they're working. Meeting room participants will be granted controlled access, and you can even store meeting minutes, running chats, and documents there.

 

Also in Sametime V8.5 will be a new Web browser version based on AJAX. It will have a zero footprint that will make it accessible to users, say, with thin-client desktops. However, pricing for the new Web version will probably remain about the same as that today for the version running on a local client. It is priced by the user with no extra charges for the server. The U.S. price for the standard version is roughly $75 per user list with volume discounts. It delivers integrated enterprise instant messaging, VOIP, video chats, and Web conferencing capabilities, all with security features required for business use. A more elaborate version with social networking capabilities runs about $100 per user.

 

Despite the continual roll-out of new products and features from ISVs Google and Yahoo! that offer similar products--at least as far as instant messaging--Morse says the Lotus Sametime offer appeals to company management. The reason? It doesn't allow people to hang their laundry out on the line for all to see. While the IBM solution is highly secure and is designed to protect sensitive corporate information, the free consumer products are not secure, and companies have had their information compromised by employees using free instant messaging or collaboration services, such as Facebook.

 

''We go into companies, and they ask why they should pay for the product when they are using Google for free, but then we find they get uncomfortable when we point out the vulnerabilities of the free product,'' says Morse. ''They worry about viruses, they worry about data leakage. But we offer a higher level of functionality, and we offer a much higher level of security, and we don't find we are losing to the free alternatives. More likely, a company has gotten hooked on instant messaging from Google or Yahoo! and we are there to help them substitute a more secure, enterprise-ready alternative.''

 

Morse is an evangelist for IBM Lotus Sametime, and he truly believes in the product. Since IBM continues to invest in the entire suite of Lotus collaboration products, it appears Morse will have a fresh message to give at VoiceCon and other unified communications venues rapidly building support for this new collection of cost-saving solutions ideally suited for today's lean economic climate.

Chris Smith

Chris Smith was the Senior News Editor at MC Press Online from 2007 to 2012 and was responsible for the news content on the company's Web site. Chris has been writing about the IBM midrange industry since 1992 when he signed on with Duke Communications as West Coast Editor of News 3X/400. With a bachelor's from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in English and minored in Journalism, and a master's in Journalism from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Chris later studied computer programming and AS/400 operations at Long Beach City College. An award-winning writer with two Maggie Awards, four business books, and a collection of poetry to his credit, Chris began his newspaper career as a reporter in northern California, later worked as night city editor for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and went on to edit a national cable television trade magazine. He was Communications Manager for McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Long Beach, Calif., before it merged with Boeing, and oversaw implementation of the company's first IBM desktop publishing system there. An editor for MC Press Online since 2007, Chris has authored some 300 articles on a broad range of topics surrounding the IBM midrange platform that have appeared in the company's eight industry-leading newsletters. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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