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IBM's Sametime 7.5: An Emerging Collaboration Platform

One of the key messages that IBM discussed during the 9/13 launch event of Sametime 7.5 was the transformation of Sametime from a product to a platform. We can debate the “completeness” of it as a platform in this release, but it is a step in that direction.

I think there needs to be one more major revision on the back-end Sametime server that modernizes the infrastructure for it to truly become a platform. Also, there needs to be more maturity in terms of granularity and modularization of Sametime services, toolkit integration capabilities in terms of XML and web services, and build-out of the partner ecosystem in terms of plug-ins.

But the idea of a real-time collaboration system as a platform, rather than as a productivity tool, is a point to ponder in any regard.  Here's three ways that version 7.5 is confronting this challenge.

Traditionally, when we think about collaboration products, we tend to focus much of our attention on asynchronous tools such as discussion forums, wikis and workspaces. In a way, this makes sense. Groups often work off-cycle from one another. Providing groups with a persistent shared space accessible by all team members to improve document sharing and activity coordination has obvious advantages.

When we look at real-time tools such as instant messaging, web conferencing, presence and IP telephony, we tend to look at the value of these tools to users as transitional and temporary. We use IM for a quick chat. We use web conferencing for a virtual meeting and avoid a business trip. We use presence as a bread crumb to connect to someone via click-to-call or click-to-talk. Lacking in the industry in general, has been a more serious analysis and comprehensive look at the value of real-time collaboration as a platform to deliver situational applications in-context of persistent group conversation.

There are certain types of collaboration where asynchronous platforms might not be as necessary or less-helpful than a synchronous environment that enables group members to interact in real-time. Some requirements for asynchronous interfaces are likely necessary but for some users, real-time interaction might be the primary user experience. Some early work in this area has been delivered already by Adobe and Parlano. Adobe Breeze has delivered a persistent conference space around a web conferencing metaphor and Parlano has delivered a group persistent chat capability based on an IM metaphor. The philosophical question is, "When does a communication channel become a space, and how do we manage a persistent real-time space that is dialog-centric in a manner that avoids the problems we are all too familiar with e-mail?"

IBM and other vendors working on this type of synchronous collaboration model will have to establish a real-time platform that supports multiple communication interfaces and modalities. While these hurdles are a challenge, this type of thinking by the industry is very innovative and will likely unleash the creativity of many developers to build some imaginative applications.  Concerning Sametime 7.5, these three elements are important for it to blossom into a real-time collaboration platform:

Federation: By the end of the year, Sametime 7.5 will include a new Real-Time Collaboration Gateway (see image, below). Built on WebSphere Application Server, this new gateway enables IM connectivity with outside networks such as AOL, Yahoo! and Google (TBD). I would expect that customer pressure will also result in connectivity with Microsoft at some point. The new gateway supports logging and policy enforcement as well as a plug-in model that will be used for future protocol translators (such as XMPP) and by third-parties for security and hygiene purposes (e.g., Akonix and Facetime).



Application Platform: Arguably the most strategic advancement in this release is a new architected client (see image, below) built on Eclipse and WebSphere Everyplace Deployment (WED). This plug-in model enables Sametime to become reusable as an application platform. A wide variety of developers and third-parties that are building to Eclipse can take advantage of Sametime 7.5 to deliver situational applications focused on real-time collaboration. IBM and its partners demonstrated several of those applications at the launch event and also announced a partner catalog to support an expected viral growth of plug-ins. Extensions that target social networking, RSS, group decision support, expertise location as well as “mash-up”-type plug-ins are certainly doable in this release.


 
Unified Communications: IBM’s continues to build-out for support of IP telephony (refer to Figure 3), audio conferencing and video conferencing in this release. Sametime 7.5 more clearly defines a partner business model than early versions. While work remains on modernizing the server back-end, and defining a framework for unified messaging, Sametime 7.5 is advanced enough that it puts IBM squarely in competition with Microsoft concerning Unified Communications. Sametime 7.5 enables PC-to-PC VoIP voice chat with other Sametime users. It also enables users to call any phone (office, mobile, home) through Sametime’s support for third-party audio and conferencing providers. In Sametime 7.0 this support included Avaya and Premier Global Services. In Sametime 7.5, Cisco (who demonstrated integration with Call Manager) and Nortel were the most noticeable additions. Video conferencing partners also continue to work with IBM. Radvision demonstrated video integration for instance. Avistar, Polycom, and Tandberg are also supporting the release.

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