IBM Vs. Microsoft In Telephony Integration Middleware Race

Presentations at the VoiceCon show this week show how similar the two companies are in their services, yet vastly different in their core strategies.

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

August 22, 2007

5 Min Read

IBM's plans to ship next year telephony integration technology as a foundation for its Sametime unified communications client highlights the company's approach to the emerging UC market, along with its key differences with rival Microsoft.

Mike Rhodin, Lotus' general manager for IBM, on Wednesday unveiled Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony at the VoiceCon show in San Francisco. Along with the new product, which is expected to be released in beta in the first quarter of next year, Rhodin also introduced a new version of Sametime that starts to ship in the fall, and announced the acquisition of Web-conferencing company WebDialogs.

Unified Telephony, in general, would provide a software platform that IBM customers could use to leverage PBX or IP PBX systems from multiple vendors within the Sametime UC and collaboration client. PBXs interconnect telephone extensions to each other as well as to the outside telephone network. Unified communications enable the real-time redirection of voice, text, or e-mail to the device closest to the user at any given time.

IBM has partnered with Siemens to get the technology IBM needs to connect the Unified Telephony platform, scheduled to ship in the middle of next year, to legacy telephone systems. "It's a natural marriage of skills," Rhodin said during a news conference that followed his VoiceCon keynote. "They're very good at the back-end stuff, and we're very good on the front end."

The partnership also demonstrates a difference in approach to the UC market between IBM and Microsoft, which has yet to partner with infrastructure companies like Siemens in delivering its UC platform in the fall. IBM's announcements came one day after Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate VP of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, told VoiceCon attendees that Microsoft would ship Office Communications Server 2007, Office Communicator 2007, and Office Live Meeting Oct. 16.

IBM has chosen to approach the market with technology that can leverage companies' existing telephone systems, while Microsoft has made it clear that it hopes to one day replace those systems with software-based communications running on servers. "When you don't have a software-centric point of view, then you're heading in the wrong direction," Pall said at VoiceCon.

Rhodin, on the other hand, said IBM has no plans to compete with PBX vendors, but prefers to use standard integration technology to connect its middleware to whatever telecommunications systems its customers choose. "IBM is not trying to drive down a path that will require ripping out technology," Rhodin told reporters.

IBM also looks at Microsoft's UC platform as catch-up technology, arguing that the software maker is just starting to deliver capabilities that can match those of IBM, which has been in the UC market years longer than Microsoft. "We think we're in the lead here ... and we plan on staying ahead," Rhodin said. According to market researcher COMMfusion, IBM and Microsoft are offering the same UC components: voice and telephony, collaboration, instant messaging and presence, unified messaging, and integration with business processes and applications. The differences, however, is that IBM is leveraging partner technology in the areas of voice and telephony, and unified messaging. In the area of integration to business applications, Microsoft, so far, is connecting only to its Office productivity suite. That, however, is likely to be expanded.

COMMfusion analyst Blair Pleasant said during a breakout session at VoiceCon that Microsoft is using gateways in the areas of voice and video Internet telephony to integrate with other parts of the enterprise. Its platform, however, could operate without PBXs.

Microsoft is expected to market its Office Communications Server and other software as a complement to PBX and IP PBX systems. But Pleasant believes the company is actually offering a "Trojan horse," since its likely when companies are ready to replace their PBX systems, Microsoft will have many of the telephone control capabilities they'll need.

IBM's products, on the other hand, emphasizes Sametime as the UC client, offer telephony integration with PBX suppliers, and leverages IBM's WebSphere application server to embed communications within business applications, such as enterprise resource planning and customer management software from SAP and Oracle-owned PeopleSoft and Siebel.

To extend Sametime with new functionality, IBM is offering open-source Eclipse development tools. Microsoft is focused on its own Visual Studio suite.

Meanwhile, in its effort to stay one step ahead of Microsoft, IBM introduced at VoiceCon Sametime 8, which will be available in three versions: entry, standard and advanced. The latter version would include three new capabilities. First is the ability to create a permanent chat room in which people can move in and out of. Secondly, communities of employees can be set up around, for example, a particular expertise, so a person can ask a question to the community and get answers from people they may not know. The response thread could then be archived as part of an FAQ.

The third function adds screen sharing to Sametime, so a person could actually see the desktop of the person they are communicating with. The standard edition of Sametime 8 will be available in the fall, while the advanced and entry editions are scheduled to ship in the first half of next year. The entry edition would be available in the fall to customers of Lotus Notes 8, which IBM made generally available Aug. 17.

With the WebDialogs acquisition, IBM plans to add Web conferencing as an online service accessible through Sametime. The software-as-a-service offering will be called Lotus Sametime Unyte. Unyte was the name of the WebDialogs service. "We found that they have the easiest system to use in the market," Rhodin said.

IBM is targeting small-to-medium sized businesses and departments within larger organizations. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

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