Lotus Sametime 7.5, announced at Lotusphere in January 2006, is based on the Eclipse open-source development platform. It includes instant messaging, Web-based conferencing and VOIP (voice-over-IP) communications in a unified collaboration platform.
The product features federated interoperability with other popular instant messaging systems. It also includes presence awareness, so that users can be recognized by the system even if they are working remotely from their offices.
"This is not an incremental release, its a reinvention of this space," said Ken Bisconti, vice president of Lotus Products at IBM.
Customers who are making up their minds about the technology will now face a choice between two large rivals, IBM and Microsoft, with unified messaging platforms that are not geared to interoperate.
IBM has signed up partners such as Research In Motion, which has integrated the Sametime client with its BlackBerry wireless communications device. Other partners include Radvision, a maker of audio and video conferencing software, GroupSystems, which makes ThinkTank group collaboration software, Dassault Systemes, which has created an engineering graphics plug-in, Cisco Systems, Avaya and Nortel Networks.
Sametime 7.5 supports Windows mobile clients, and support for the Apple Macintosh is in the works, IBM officials said. IBM claims a total of 100 partners in all.
"For IBM, its clearly a partner play for real-time collaboration and messaging. Microsoft has made some improvements through public network integration and is opening up their platform, but less so than IBM," said Matt Brown, an analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass.
"The big horse race is whether the vision of open-standards computing will work better than the stack approach [of Microsoft]," Brown said. He added that for now, IBM has the edge in product delivery. "IBM is shipping right now. The next generation of Microsoft communications server is still in beta. IBM is ahead by one quarter or so," he said.
An interoperability bridge between the two rival camps could come from a number of partners that are also adapting their wares to Microsofts Communications Server and SharePoint Portal Server.
Even though Sametime debuted eight years ago, widespread adoption has been slow. However, Michael Rhodin, general manager of IBM Lotus Software, in Cambridge, Mass., said IBMs most recent semiannual survey of CEOs uncovered strong interest in real-time collaboration tools, thanks to increasing globalization of corporations, their supply chains and their customer base. Rhodin said customers are now ready for the technology and that the Sametime 7.5 rollout marks "the dawn of real-time business."
Forresters Brown was not convinced. "IBM is leading the market a bit. Customers arent asking for this already," he said. Even so, he said the technology is getting to a point where its possible to do more. When Microsoft rolls out its rival platform in 2007, the race will be on. "Who can establish this as a platform? Whichever company can gain the mindshare will be the winner," he said.