Unified Messaging: IBM's Unsung Communications Product
We may see IBM's UM playing a more prominent position in its overall UC strategy.
Lotusphere can be such a great event. Loud, glitzy keynotes that, like most keynotes really, are too loud and too glitzy for me, but seemed to jazz up a lot of the audience. A huge selection of sessions to choose from--with separate tracks for people looking for in-the-weeds technical or pie-in-the-sky strategic. Labs where product designers geek out over feature sets and pick customers’ brains on what they most want to see in upcoming releases of the various Lotus products. And everything focused around a single set of products…unlike a regular tradeshow that’s all over the place in terms of the vendors and products and technologies you run to.
At every Lotusphere it seems I stumble across something interesting but completely unexpected and unrelated to the official theme of the conference. Last year--when Project Vulcan was all the rage on the keynote stage--it was some scurrilous remarks about the need for desk phones that stood out to me. The year before--when details of Sametime 8.5 were being introduced--it was ShoreTel just starting to port its telephony software over to the Foundations appliance. This year--when keynote presenters were all going on about social this and social that--it was some old school technology--unified messaging, of all things--that had me distracted.
I don't know about you, but I'm not used to thinking of IBM as a developer of unified messaging software. Unified communications, sure, with the whole Sametime business-grade instant messaging software and Sametime Unified Telephony integrate-your-multivendor-PBX-network-with-our-IM-stuff middleware. And email messaging of course, with Notes. But voice mail and unified messaging...that comes from PBX vendors. PBX vendors that IBM has long been very careful to partner, not compete with. It's also been something Microsoft delivers as part of its whole "PBXs? We don’t need no stinkin’ PBXs" play.
But IBM has apparently been in the unified messaging game for years and years. The reason I (and maybe you too) haven’t heard about it is because it's been a WebSphere product--Unified Messaging for WebSphere Voice Response--that's been kept well away from the Lotus deliverables that are mainly associated with the company's unified communications and collaboration business. Part of the reason for separating the two has been IBM's aforementioned strategy to partner, not compete with the PBX folk. But there may be changes afoot.
Case in point--IBM Unified Messaging for Lotus Notes and Sametime. This product was not called out by name in any of the keynotes or sessions, at least none that I attended. Nor was it in any way highlighted in any of the cluster of IBM booths in the exposition area. Instead it was tucked away in a booth run by VoiceRite, a systems integrator and application developer I've mainly come across in relation to Cisco-based contact center solutions. VoiceRite wrote a plug-in that makes IBM Unified Messaging available via Lotus apps including--as the product name indicates--Notes and Sametime. It integrates with Avaya/Nortel, Cisco, and Siemens Enterprise PBXs, and has mobile client software for Android and Blackberry devices (with iPhone support soon to be added). It’s been deployed as the voice mail component of a number of carriers' centrex services (including Verizon’s), and has a large base of customers, which include the US Senate and the State of Pennsylvania.
Now, none of this is particularly new. The VoiceRite plug-in came out four years ago, and the WebSphere unified messaging software was out at least four years before that. Based on conversations with some IBMers at Lotusphere, here’s why we may see IBM's UM playing a more prominent position in its overall UC strategy:
* IBM Unified Messaging is now being sold by IBM Software Services for Lotus. (At least this is what I'm told. The products does not actually appear on the group's website, so it would be interesting to get confirmation of this.)
* In sales situations, the Services group now positions IBM Unified Messaging as an alternative to messaging products from Cisco, Avaya and others.
* IBM Unified Messaging, while scalable to 100,000s to millions of users for carrier deployments, has a sweet spot of 5,000 users...and at least one customer has it deployed supporting about 500. Scalability from 500 to 5,000 users is very complementary to the size of customer Lotus products like Sametime are sold to.
* IBM Unified Messaging is expected to be incorporated into LotusLive as the voice mail component of the service.
At this point it's important for me to note that I've had no conversations with folks in the Lotus division to say IBM Unified Messaging will soon be brought into the Lotus fold. Nor have I had heard that there will be a change in strategy for IBM to compete rather than partner with PBX vendors. (Although at one Lotusphere session on the topic of the future of Sametime when the question "Who would like to see IBM deliver its own PBX?" was asked, the hands of several customers shot up.) However, voice mail and unified messaging are key components of any business telephony solution. So if the Lotus division’s new leadership is considering changes of this sort, it's interesting that they have a mature, proven, highly scalable UM product at their fingertips.