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IBM's Sametime 7.5 Launch: User Experience

Until recently, IBM lacked an overall go-to-market message that established the business importance of real-time collaboration (RTC). IBM also seemed complacent concerning Sametime and had not modernized the product to keep pace with customer needs and market competition. IBM also had not clearly established a cohesive partner model that was attractive to vendors interested in extending Sametime into the much-hyped market of unified communications. Given this historical context, the 9/13 launch event in NYC was important from a strategic perspective because it demonstrated that IBM's attention, investment and prioritization of real-time collaboration and unified communications is finally where it needs to be in terms of market focus, technology capability, partner business models, professional services and customer value.

Here's what's new for users in Sametime 7.5, now that I've had a chance to use it.

For the past three years, Microsoft has dominated the media spotlight when it came to mindshare and thought leadership concerning enterprise instant messaging, and the role of collaboration platforms as frameworks for broad adoption of unified communications.

What we need to see from this point forward from IBM is continued execution at all levels (e.g., market, partner, technology) because the company still has a lot of hard work to do on the back-end of the Sametime platform beyond what this release includes. It also needs to incisively differentiate its framework for unified communications from Microsoft. This includes a better story in terms of a hosted, software-as-a-service option for organizations that is as prominent as what Microsoft is evolving towards.  

Technically, Sametime 7.5 is important in four ways:

1.    Modernized user experience
2.    Federation with Public IM networks
3.    Platform for RTC-enabled applications
4.    Foundation for Unified Communications

I’ll cover the first item in this post.

The most broadly used IM clients, in general, are those offered by public network providers (e.g., AOL, MSN, and Yahoo!). The implications of this situation are pretty obvious. In many instances, the first exposure information workers will have to instant messaging is through their own personal interaction with these online services. Workers then form expectations of what they should be able to do with IM tools and internalize them as desired requirements when they use similar tools at work. Users often lament that consumer-oriented tools adapt more easily to their needs than similar tools they use within enterprise environments.

Sametime has historically not been compelling for users in terms of its UI design. It has also lacked capabilities commonly found in consumer IM clients. The release of 7.5 is a significant step forward in terms of a modern user interface. Many consumer-like functions now exist (e.g., richer text, click-to-talk, emoticons). More importantly, there are features that makes sense within the workplace such as business card profiles, chat history management, screen clippings, auto-status change of presence, telephony integration, desktop SSO and location awareness.

Concerning web conferencing, Sametime had also lagged behind its competitors. WebEx and Microsoft dominate the web conferencing market with their hosted offerings. Adobe, while not as widely popular, is impressive from a user experience perspective (not a surprise given to its Flash heritage). At some point, web conferencing will become just a feature of an overall unified communications platform that offers an integrated set of hosted and on-premise services. Users' need and management policy will then determine the right configuration for a given activity (likely based on security and compliance demands).

While IBM still lacks a credible story when it comes to a hosted model, and much work remains on building out a cohesive unified communications platform, Sametime 7.5 does address many of the user experience shortcomings related to web conferencing. The initial splash page can be customized to display relevant meeting information. There are also improvements to audio conferencing and moderator controls as well as application sharing, annotation and whiteboard tools. Slide management is better, including upgraded file conversion services.

Improving the user experience was an incredibly important first step in making Sametime relevant again. And it comes just-in-time given Microsoft’s series of moves in this space (e.g., June announcement of Office Communications Server 2007, RoundTable, etc.). Without these changes, Sametime would not have been able to generate user interest in how real-time collaboration can improve their daily work activities. And that would have been a fatal mistake. Sure, IBM can always present a business case to IT groups that would stress infrastructure robustness, but without a strong set of use case scenarios anchored on a revamped user experience, adoption patterns would have lagged. A modernized client provides the needed foundation for IBM to position other capabilities critical to its long-term success. I will discuss those items (i.e., federation, application platform, and unified communications) in my next post.

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