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IBM Sametime 9: Past, Present and Future

At Connect 2014 (formerly the Lotusphere event), IBM focused on the tagline of “Energizing Life’s Work.” Have they succeeded in making that case in the unified communications market?

IBM made two sets of announcements that will affect the purchasing decisions of the Unified Communications and Enterprise Telephony communities that consider IBM. One was a branding announcement that will change the names of many of the IBM collaboration tools and bring them under the IBM Connections brand; the other was an update of Sametime 9, which will now be known as IBM Connections Chat and IBM Connections Meetings.

From a high level branding perspective, the majority of IBM communications tools will be brought under the Connections umbrella, including:

* IBM Connections for online collaboration, such as file sharing, wikis, activity streams, and profiles
* IBM Connections Docs for office productivity software
* IBM Connections Chat to cover the Sametime 9 offerings
* IBM Connections Meetings to represent web and audio conferencing capabilities
* IBM Connections Mail for email, calendar appointments, and contacts, but not including IBM Notes and Domino
* IBM Connections Content Manager for enterprise content management

This change represents an increasing consolidation in branding, at the very least, and represents IBM's increasing focus on connecting all of the various sharing and collaboration applications and middleware in their portfolio under a single brand.

In addition, IBM's Kramer Reeves and John Del Pizzo provided an update on the current status and roadmap of the company's telephony-oriented products, including 2013 highlights, key traits of Sametime 9, and a branding change in which Sametime products will be shifted to the Connections family.

A Look Back: Sametime in 2013
IBM began its presentation by highlighting Frost & Sullivan analyst and No Jitter contributor Melanie Turek when she wrote about the initial launch of Sametime 9. To provide some context into how Sametime 9 was created and how IBM's Connections technology progressed in 2013, IBM first spoke about its highlights in 2013.

Sametime progressed in three key areas in 2013: Audio conferencing, private cloud, and mobile (or as Del Pizzo put it "Mobile, Mobile, and Mobile. I cannot overemphasize mobile"). For audio conferencing, Sametime set up a partnership with an enterprise-grade market leader, Arkadin, to support voice over IP, toll meetings, and toll-free meetings. With this partnership, IBM hopes to ease some of the long-held pain points around unreliable conferencing calls that are difficult to set up and manage.

Sametime also rolled out private cloud meetings in 2013 as part of IBM's continued focus on supporting core IT capabilities in the cloud. Although IBM does not consider itself to be in the telephony business in the same way that Avaya, Cisco, and other UC providers are, it often gets asked to support telephony environments due to its role as a global IT provider. When IBM is asked to provide telephony capabilities, it works with IBM Global Technology Services, which will either use Sametime or Unify (previously Siemens Enterprise Communications), depending on which front-end is more appropriate for clients.

From a mobile perspective, IBM now develops for Connections Chat on a "Mobile First" basis, with the assumption that new capabilities need to work first for mobile and then also for desktops. IBM has a dedicated team to work on Connections Chat and Meetings mobile clients to deliver new functionalities.

In addition, mobile users of Connections Meetings can now pull up thumbnails of existing web conferences to quickly preview upcoming slides and catch up if they show up to meetings late. This capability, in and of itself, will save time for mobile employees, but the reasoning behind this functionality also spoke to IBM's primary goals. By providing these previews, IBM seeks to make meetings both shorter and more effective.

In contrast to the standard enterprise application or social platform that seems focused on increasing your use of the application over time, IBM is focused on designing Connections Chat and Connections Meetings to reduce the amount of time that we end up using these products, by making people more productive. This fundamental shift in thinking is an interesting move that could lead to increasing simplicity from the IBM Connections Suite in the future.

Six Key Goals for Sametime 9
IBM described 6 major goals that they had for Sametime 9 after 23 months of development. (Note: Although IBM announced the branding change from Sametime 9 to Connections Chat and Connections Meetings at IBM Connect, the documentation and presentations all stated Sametime Communicate, Sametime Conference, and Sametime Unified Telephony as the key products. For the sake of continuity, I will use these terms even though we will all expect for these terms to change to the Connections brand very soon.)

1) A user interface and experience that people would love: For IBM to say this as a stated goal may sound odd to those of us who have worked with older versions of Lotus, Sametime, and other IBM applications. But Del Pizzo was the first to admit that Sametime had looked like "a Windows 95" app since its user experience was last updated in 2006 for Sametime 7.5

It was a stated primary goal to revamp the entire user experience and provide IBM customers with a new and easier communications experience. The real goal is to have what IBM calls a "lean forward" moment where a user puts up the first slide or demo and everyone at the table leans in to see the experience. This focus on user experience and design was a common theme throughout IBM Connect; a separate keynote focused on IBM Design and the goal of hiring 1,000 developers by the end of 2017 for their new DesignCenter in Austin, Texas.

2) IBM sought to provide "practical" voice and video: Although Sametime has had voice and video for some time, IBM customers were also asking for continuous-presence video, which traditionally required hardware. Now, IBM can provide a continuous video experience all in software that is geographically distributed, secure, and redundant. This story was also supported by solutions partners at IBM Connect, such as Vidyo and Polycom.

3) Social was a key goal for Connections: Although the phrase "social business" was notably absent from IBM Connect since it has failed to catch on as a profitable market, the key goal of making employees more social is still top of mind for IBM. IBM used the example of its video chat widget, which was developed as a proof of concept and subsequently productized, as an example of a way to further embed Sametime capability into other applications. At this point, Sametime meeting rooms and persistent group chat can also be provided in this manner, and IBM seeks to build widgets for other parts of the portfolio as well.

4) Mobile, Mobile, Mobile: It is hard to overemphasize the focus on mobility that IBM provided at this show. IBM took pains to explain that it has a specific philosophy when it comes to mobile. In the enterprise, IBM believes mobility should not just be an observational experience, but an experience that is as robust and capable as a web browser.

On a going-forward basis, companies should expect IBM to provide the same capabilities for tablets and Web browsers, with the expectation that there will be little to no differentiation between mobile and desktop IBM Connections offerings. If anything, IBM provided the expectation that functionalities would potentially be provided on mobile devices before they would come to the desktop.

5) Cloud: IBM considers mobility and cloud to be inextricably linked, even if "cloud" was not repeated in triplicate. IBM's recent $1.2 billion commitment in the cloud on top of its $2 billion acquisition of SoftLayer speaks to its increased focus on the cloud as a growth opportunity. Del Pizzo accentuated during the Sametime keynote that "we wanted to be ready for the cloud. In the future, all development will be mobile first, then for on-premises."

In the past, IBM customers seeking to deploy applications on the cloud often had to work with third parties, but these times seem to be coming to an end.

6) The integration of Sametime branding: Prior to IBM's decision to brand Sametime as a Connections product, the Sametime team had undergone a significant effort to simplify the naming convention of the product. Previously, IBM had had 91 Sametime SKUs, but these products are being pulled into one standard package that was previously shared at launch.

Next page: Sametime Goals for 2014 and Beyond

Key Goals for Sametime in 2014 and Beyond

For the ongoing roadmap, Del Pizzo spelled out the following goals for Sametime:

1) Mobility--IBM is focusing on context preservation between devices, mobile APIs, and integrating other IBM applications directly into Sametime. Interestingly, Del Pizzo mentioned that he thought the Sametime team would be working on Windows Phone and tablets over the next 18 months, meaning that Windows seems to have passed a minimum level of viability to justify investment. This could be an interesting trend to watch over 2014: Which enterprise vendors are publically announcing Microsoft mobile support?

Also in the first half of 2014, integrations with both Fiberlink and MobileIron are planned. Although both of these vendors are known for their mobile device management (MDM) capabilities, it will be interesting to see how IBM integrates each of these products. Of course, IBM recently purchased Fiberlink, so this integration should theoretically be easier as an internal integration. However, it will be interesting to track to what extent IBM also integrates MobileIron's capabilities with application management, data management, and content management into Sametime over the next few months. Although IBM customers will be glad to see this integration take place, will there be political issues as IBM integrates both an internal and an external solution?

To look at a recent challenge that has some similarities, consider IBM's strategy with telecom expense management (TEM). IBM was once linked closely to Tangoe, the market leader in TEM, until it purchased Emptoris and its complex spend management tools including Rivermine's telecom expense management product. Once IBM had an in-house application for this capability, IBM's relationship with Tangoe waned over time. Although this relationship is still significant, IBM has clearly shown a preference for its own application on a going-forward basis.

2) For social, IBM plans to focus on bringing meeting management features to Connections so that administrators and power users can better control their conferencing environments. Also, integration with IBM Connections Docs will be important as document access becomes a key differentiator for collaboration tools. This trend will be increasingly important in the unified communications world as people ask not only to connect to each other through multiple channels, but to access key content as well.

3) For video, IBM would like to support more continuous streams for larger video conferences, since Sametime currently supports 6 streams on its desktop client and 4 on its mobile client. IBM also plans to focus on video recording for its conferences, VDI support for Citrix as virtualization becomes increasingly important as a communications enabler, and improved content sharing within video meetings. As stated before, the goal is not for IBM to surpass other video providers, but rather to increase the current efficacy of video-based meetings.

4) And finally, with cloud, the big goals are related to federation and the hybrid cloud. IBM has been loud and clear about its focus on all aspects of the cloud, and Sametime was no exception. IBM is seeking to federate cloud and on-premises communities and to integrate cloud and on-premises unified communications environments.

Understanding IBM Sametime
In 2012, IBM added 2.3 million installs of Sametime, bringing IBM's share of licensed users to 35 million users, not including those who may be using a free client or Connections Cloud. This growth reflects a multi-year trend where Sametime has been bundled as part of the Connections suite and Web Experience software. Currently, 60% of Sametime sales are part of an IBM bundle, rather than standalone sales. For the remaining 40% who bought new licenses, more than half had no IBM portfolio, meaning that the Sametime 9 portfolio is opening doors for IBM.

When releasing this latest iteration of Sametime, IBM had realistically expected that new deployments would start to happen in the first half of 2014, since IT budgets were largely spent and the need to upgrade communications and conferencing environments is largely dictated by end user needs rather than technology announcements. However, IBM had started 15 deployments in Europe by mid-December 2013.

IBM has shown that its strategy for Sametime is not to become the next great PBX and voice solution to compete with Cisco, Avaya, and now Microsoft Lync. Although this strategy can make Sametime more difficult to understand at times, it also allows IBM to come into organizations more opportunistically. IBM sees voice as just another application that requires a middleware layer to be integrated with the rest of the enterprise application portfolio. This makes Sametime a fundamentally different type of product that reflects both the transformation of telephony into unified communications and the increased need for enterprise collaboration.

As with most of IBM's technology portfolio, the progression of Sametime isn't measured purely by incremental gains in technical functionality, scalability, and usability. Instead, IBM's focus is on higher level business goals. In this case, IBM wants to accelerate collaboration, especially for remote and mobile employees rather than wanting to reach parity across the board with traditional enterprise telephony products. This approach will mean that Sametime will have some gaping holes by traditional voice and conferencing measures because IBM cares more about the challenges of turning 60-minute meetings into 30-minute meetings, or of directly translating novel insights gathered in a meeting directly to new ideation, sales, or training opportunities.

As IBM continues to bring Sametime into the Connections umbrella, both as a branded product and as an integration hub for many of IBM's collaborative tools, the company faces similar challenges as in past years. As neither fish nor fowl in the Unified Communications world and with a social product in Connections that often falls outside the purview of traditional telephony buyers, it has traditionally been challenging to bring Sametime in the enterprise. And IBM still faces specific challenges as it continues to push its MobileFirst and SmartCloud initiatives that may be too much, too soon for some IT buyers.

But with positive market movement, an improved user interface, a big shift towards mobile and cloud, and a focus on specific integrations with content and a robust social collaboration product, IBM put its best foot forward in showing how Sametime fits into the Connect 2014 theme of Energizing Life's Work.