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IBM & Telephony
IBM last month announced Lotus Foundations Reach, described as a self-managing, "office in a box" appliance for SMBs. It combines unified communications and collaboration (UCC) tools, such as instant messaging (IM), presence awareness to see who is online and available, as well as email, calendars, contacts, office productivity tools, network security, remote access, file and print sharing, and backup and disaster recovery. It also includes the ability to connect to a peripheral telephony system. IBM said that the new product integrates capabilities from its Sametime Unified Telephony platform to allow users the ability to add VoIP into their collaboration environment.Among the announced IBM business partners who will build solutions to work on the Lotus Foundations platform are two prominent enterprise communications system suppliers, NEC and ShoreTel. NEC is creating a version of its UNIVERGE Sphericall communications software that can be downloaded to Foundations to create a complete UC and business collaboration solution specifically designed for SMBs and branch offices, and ShoreTel is incorporating its IP telephony platform with IBM Lotus Foundations Reach to provide a complete unified communications and collaboration solution designed specifically for SMBs.
To an interested observer it appears that IBM is not yet on the same road Microsoft is traveling: Replace the need for standalone IP telephony systems with its own converged telephony/UCC offering. Compared to Microsoft's OCS offering, the new Lotus Foundations Reach solution and Sametime Unified Telephony currently lack a list of traditional telephony features and capabilities, e.g. support of a desktop telephone instrument that can reasonably replace an existing telephony system. I see the IBM approach as an alternative to Microsoft's. Microsoft has explicitly stated that OCS will evolve into a full featured telephony solution that will replace PBXs; I don't recall ever hearing from IBM a similar statement.
It's looking more and more that tomorrow's competitive landscape will pit Microsoft against the traditional telephony system suppliers partnered with IBM (who was a major PBX player during its ill-fated Rolm days before selling out to Siemens). The third party of the competitive tripod equation will be Cisco Systems. Cisco is strongly staking its claim in the UCC market as an alternative to either Microsoft or IBM, with its spate of acquisitions, such as Webex and Jabber, and its own product development efforts. It's difficult to see any of the traditional telephony system suppliers competing head-to-head with Microsoft and IBM for control of UCC applications at the desktop like Cisco potentially can. The only other competitor with the potential is Google, and it is likely that they would do so solely as a Cloud service provider. There are other major IT suppliers who could enter the market, such as Oracle (a software-centric darkhorse in the race) or equipment suppliers such as HP and Dell should they decide to expand beyond their current product portfolios. Dell, certainly, cannot depend mainly on PCs for their future well being.
Getting back to IBM, the computer, software and services giant can at any time leap into the forefront of the telephony market through acquisition. There is no indication that they will make a bid for Nortel ES, but the possibility should not be totally dismissed, however unlikely. A smarter play may be a down-the-road acquisition of either Avaya (the "stalking horse" bidder for Nortel ES) or Siemens Enterprise Communications. Both are currently owned or controlled by private equity. Silver Lake/TPG's original $8.2 billion investment has shrunk considerably the past two years and taking Avaya public again anytime soon is not a likely option. Gores Group acquired 51% of Siemens Enterprise Communications for virtually peanuts, and selling it for a nice profit before it invests too much more money may be an attractive idea. Siemens AG, which still has a major stake in the enterprise system supplier, would probably not hesitate selling its stake to a company such as IBM if certain accommodations regarding the future of the sold company were met to protect the investment of its customer base (many who will remain consumers of other Siemens products).
Of course, all of the above is mere speculation: IBM is just as likely to stay out of the core telephony market as enter. Google, too, may decide not to waste resources on a market for minimal return on its investment. I, for one, would be hesitant to invest financial resources in enterprise voice solutions, when mobile communications and computing is the more attractive market. Better to save my money for my next trip to Las Vegas, where the odds are better.