IBM Makes Big UCC Bet

Lotus Software General Manager Mike Rhodin discusses how UCC technology will change the industry. 

IBM plans to spend $1 billion during the next three years on unified communications and collaboration, with its Sametime instant messaging and video- and Web conferencing application as the hub technology. The company is moving aggressively into the market versus Microsoft but needs to be wary of partners such as Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, both of which also want a piece of a UCC pie that IDC said it believes will total $17 billion in the next few years.

Mike Rhodin, general manager of IBM Lotus Software, is tasked with deciding how IBM will spend the money on UCC-new technology, partner integrations, services and perhaps even some small acquisitions. Rhodin sat down for a chat with eWEEK Senior Writer Clint Boulton after a small press gathering at the company's Somers, N.Y., offices March 10 to discuss UCC, the broader market and the competition.

Earlier this month [March] you launched Lotus Sametime Advanced, an application that adds persistent chat and social networking capabilities from Lotus Connections. What is the thrust behind that software?

Sametime Advanced lets users reach out and touch people you don't know. People-centric collaboration like I talked about at Lotusphere tends to be focused on people who know each other-I know I need to talk to Phil because he has knowledge that I need. What if I don't know who to go to? What if I know I need help on Java programming?

What I want to be able to do is reach out to a community of experts. But I need an answer right now, so I can't just send out a broadcast e-mail and wait for someone to open it and read their e-mail in the next couple of days. What I need to do is send a broadcast instant message out to a community of experts around Java programming. So, the little Sametime bubble will appear on their desktop saying the following question has been asked by someone in the community. You could choose to opt in or not opt in.

We've tried out this technology inside IBM for the last couple of years, and found 2 or 3 percent of the people in the community will opt in to a particular question. If you have 100 people in the community, that's two or three people. That's pretty good. All of a sudden you have three new friends that have self-declared expertise. When you respond, everyone is pulled into a group chat, so it's not a one-on-one conversation. You actually get all three or four of you into a community chat and you can discuss the problem, come up with a resolution, and, at the end of it, save the answer in a knowledge base. We've taken Lotus Connections and brought it into the Sametime user experience.

What does IBM envision as the intersection between UCC and virtual reality software?

There are several. We have an emerging business opportunity group inside IBM focused on 3-D Internet, and all of the different run-times that exist, whether it's Linden Labs, our Metaverse or Forterra [Systems]. We have prototypes running of different things on different systems. The Forterra example [Sametime integrates with a virtual world crafted by Forterra] is about a specific targeted industry, the intelligence industry. We now have telephony fully integrated so the avatars in Forterra are actually talking to each other. Lips are moving. They're having a conversation.

More and more of the unified communications capability is being brought in. Presence becomes a different thing. Instead of a little green bubble on someone's name, a new person shows up in the room. We're experimenting with multiple different visualization paradigms right now to start to look at business-purpose uses of the technology. The take-away is that we're actively investing across the emerging business group, which is really targeting Lotus as the endpoint, the Lotus team and then IBM Research, all collaborating on what these new sets of technologies might be.

From our viewpoint, where is the business value? That's what we're going for. We're not there yet. There are stores going up in Second Life, but I think we're still in a market experimentation phase.