News from VoiceCon: To Unify, or Not to Unify?

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Lots of news out of VoiceCon this week, and the most interesting is that some of it takes UC forward, and others force us all to take a (much needed) step back.

On the step-forward side, Polycom announced its Unified Communications for IBM Lotus Sametime and IBM Lotus Notes (yeah, not exactly a catchy title). The goal is to offer a rich media collaboration solution that’s integrated tightly with the Lotus software—including high-quality audio and video conferencing, for both point-to-point and multi-point calls. Users can click from within Sametime to launch an audio or video conference (IBM natively supports 5-way audio calling, but not at a quality level supported by Polycom). Meanwhile, participants can choose the device on which they’d like to receive a call or video session. And, IBM’s Global Technology Services organization will be able resell and integrate into its customers’ environments Polycom’s voice and video conferencing products, including bridges and media servers.

Separately, IBM announced that it is introducing Sametime Advanced (due Q1 2008), with persistent chat, broadcast and instant-share capabilities, and planned advanced gateway features. IBM also announced Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony (due mid 2008), a product that includes telephony plug-ins for the Sametime application, click-to-call and click-to-conference, aggregated IM, phone and calendar presence, incoming call control, and connectivity to legacy PBX and SIP-based systems—all based on OEM’d technology from Siemens. Unified messaging and voicemail capabilities are due in release 2.

With Unified Telephony, IBM isn’t exactly getting into the telephony market—“We aren’t going to start making soft switches,” promises Bruce Morse, VP, Unified Communications Software—but it is competing head to head with vendors like Avaya, Nortel and Siemens that offer a similar application of their own (Unified Communications, MCS 5100 and OpenScape, respectively). It’s also offering a true UC application, with integrated voice, IM, and conferencing capabilities, all built on a presence foundation.

Microsoft, on the other hand, would appear to be making quite a claim to the voice market with its Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 Quality of Experience Monitoring Server (what is it with these names?), which the company says will help companies monitor voice and video call quality much better than Cisco’s CallManager.

Meanwhile, IBM also announced its decision to offer Lotus Sametime Entry 8.0 (due out Q1 2008), a product designed to deliver just IM and online presence information to Outlook users; and acquired WebDialogs, a Web conferencing services vendor—both moves seemingly a step back from UC. (The company has re-branded its current Sametime offering as Sametime Standard 8.0, due Q4 2007.) It’s hard to know exactly what IBM plans to do with the WebDialogs technology, but it gets it a place at the hosted-services table, much as Cisco got through its acquisition of WebEx earlier this year (and Microsoft got years ago when it bought Placeware now LiveMeeting). Interestingly, Microsoft has announced that its hosted LiveMeeting Web conferencing tool will be available as an on-premises solution with OCS—which means three of the top UC vendors now have hosted Web conferencing offerings (that aren’t, by the way, integrated into their core UC products) and on-premises solutions. (Of course, only Microsoft’s is the same solution in both cases.)

With all the hyper surrounding unified communications, it’s certainly interesting to see key vendors offering decidedly non-unified products—especially at VoiceCon, which might as well be re-branded “UCCon.” So why the apparent back-peddling? It’s simple: Customers simply aren’t ready to deploy truly unified communications just yet. And until they are, they want future-proofed baby steps from their strategic vendors that will allow them to add best-of-breed solutions when and as they see fit.

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