Can Watson Help IBM Put New Face on UC?

When Microsoft and Cisco each announced their intentions of entering the then newly defined space called unified communications some 10 years ago, IBM already had a compelling product on the market: Sametime. So why isn't this technology giant a major UC player today? First let me provide some history and then a look at why things may be about to change.

When Sametime hit the market, it was already ahead of the planned UC tools from Microsoft and Cisco when it came to most features and capabilities -- with the exception of one critically important component, call control (PBX features). IBM had some good reasons for not building in the critical call control component, but its decision not to do so ultimately limited Sametime's success.

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Most longtime No Jitter readers will remember that at the time, IBM had already failed at several PBX initiatives, including those coming from its acquisition of Rolm (later sold to Siemens, now Unify). Based on that history, IBM was reluctant to try entering the PBX space again. Less known is that some reticence stemmed from IBM's concern about getting into the PBX business and upsetting major partners Cisco and Avaya, together which represented billions of dollars in revenue for other IBM divisions. Another issue at that time was IBM's strategic focus on other areas, diverting attention and resources that otherwise would have helped keep Sametime competitive.

The best example here is the lack of a comprehensive go-to-market strategy for Sametime. IBM never developed a channel strategy for Sametime period, let alone worked to develop converged voice/data channel partners. This left the sales responsibility to an IBM sales organization that had no incentive to sell the Sametime product, since it could sell existing products (Lotus Notes, for example) instead. In addition, the sales organization had no interest in learning a new product and a new market. As a result, Sametime was left to twist in the breeze, as they say.

Over the past 10 years, IBM has worked on several communications and collaboration solutions that have been ahead of their competition, but they have always missed an important component and often lacked a strategy to help them compete in the UC space. This could all be changing. IBM is now leveraging its Watson cognitive computing platform and the IBM Connections Cloud in partnering with other vendors to add additional features, services and, most importantly, distribution for its integrated suite of collaboration solutions.

One of those partners is Genband, which as announced yesterday is providing cloud-based PBX and video capabilities for IBM Connections and Sametime. At long last, IBM can offer a highly reliable and scalable call control solution to augment Sametime.

Genband also brings Kandy, its communications platform as a service (CPaaS) offering, to the table. This rich, extensible CPaaS platform will help partners and even customers integrate communications into many different business processes. Genband and IBM even have a website that covers their joint solution, called Realtime Connections Client.

As mentioned earlier, go-to-market strategy has been an ongoing challenge for IBM in the UC space. But with Genband, which sells to global carriers and service providers and, through channel partners, to enterprises, IBM may finally have solved this problem. The joint offering is an option for service providers that may be looking for alternative solutions to compliment or replace UC solutions based on Cisco or Microsoft, for example.

The other part of this puzzle is Watson, IBM's natural language artificial intelligence capability -- and Jeopardy champion. Watson has opened other distribution opportunities for IBM, and companies that have integrated Watson into business processes are now potential channels for it.

Analytics are hot, and it looks like IBM got into this just at the right time.