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.
Moving beyond telephone numbers
The technology here is fascinating. It reminds me of the early days of the Internet. There were lots of different HTTP servers, everybody wrote user exits [and] no applications were portable anywhere else. Everything was unique: vertical, siloed application development. We’ve seen the platforms, whether it’s Forterra, Metaverse or Linden Labs. What we haven’t seen yet are discussions around open standards and how these things are going to interoperate with each other. These are preconditions to how these things are going to take off in business.
Do you see the emergence of hypercommunications, a layer in VOIP (voice over IP) that will abstract numbers of the people we connect to so we don’t have to constantly look up numbers and program them into phones? Will we stop associating people and devices with numbers?
The Sametime Unified Telephony product that Bruce [Morse, vice president of unified communications at IBM,] was talking about is a piece of middleware that sits on top of your existing telephony environment.
What it does is federate all your different systems, both public and private, and allows you to set up profiles and rules of your preferences and ties them to the awareness capabilities in Sametime. So you can set a rule that says when Sametime says I’m in a meeting, I want all of my calls routed to voice mail; I don’t want my phone to ring. When I’m away from my desk, I want my calls automatically transferred to my cell phone.
During business hours, I want my office phone to ring. After business hours, I want my home phone to ring. Those are just rules you set up. When I’m trying to reach you, I click on your name to call you. The system figures out what numbers to use, and I don’t have to know numbers anymore. That’s the beginning of what you’re talking about, but I still have to set up the rules.
There’s still a number associated with it, though.
There’s still a number underneath the covers, but the reality is, there’s probably always going to be a number underneath the covers if you’re going to call the traditional telephony environment, right? Because at some point, it’s got to be translated into a binary string that knows how to flip the right switches in the routers that get it to the right phone.
The idea is that end users should never have to know those numbers. It’s about hiding the complexity from the end user. The simpler you make things for end users, the more complex the infrastructure gets on the back end because it’s masking all the complexity and creating a level of abstraction away from infrastructure for the end user.
The worldwide development advantage
Today, you talked about desktops and desk phones disappearing, with the majority of knowledge workers telecommuting. Will we eventually see software development move out of the corporate labs to peoples’ homes?
That’s already starting. There’s a project that IBM Rational is doing, Jazz. They’ve integrated unified communications into the development environment so the developers can collaborate in the same way that we collaborate with each other in knowledge worker tasks.
I’ve [seen] companies where developers have actually never met each other. They all work from home. Their relationship is all virtual. We have a different challenge. Ours is distributed more than virtualized. Our sales force is virtualized. Our salespeople don’t have offices anymore. Many of our services people don’t have offices anymore. If sales and services people are in an office, we’re in big trouble. We want them out with clients.
Development is a little bit different. Our development challenges aren’t so much about people working from home, even though we have a large number of people that work from home one to two days a week. Our challenge is that within my own development team, I have 13 laboratories spread against all geographies and all time zones.
None of my products are developed in any single lab. They’re spread across multiple time zones intentionally, so we can take advantage of all of the hours in the day on product development. We pass it around the globe. Someone can work on a new feature in Lotus Notes that gets developed in Boston. That night, that feature is being tested in Beijing. If the engineer in Beijing finds a problem, someone in Dublin picks that problem up in the middle of the night, Boston time, and starts debugging it, comes up with a solution. The developer in Boston comes in in the morning and fixes it.
It’s given us a tremendous advantage. It’s why you’re seeing so many products coming out from Lotus so quickly right now. We’re not trapped in a four-year release cycle unlike some of our competitors.
Earlier you acknowledged Microsoft as a newcomer to the UCC game. Do you consider Cisco a rival? I know you partner with [Cisco] on several fronts.
Cisco’s a partner. But, you know, everyone who’s traditionally had a foothold in some sort of communications space is going to try to stake out territory in that market-Cisco, Nortel, Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, the Japanese manufacturers NEC [and] Fujitsu. Then you’ve got the telcos trying to figure out where they play in this new world.
The interesting angle that we’re coming at it from is that we understand collaboration very well, and we’ve extended the platform to enable all sorts of new tools to make it easier to do something once you communicate with somebody. The communication medium becomes an enabler for collaboration.
In pledging to invest $1 billion into UCC over the next three years, I’m going to assume you have some sort of return-on-investment forecast you’d like to see. What is it?
It’s not public yet. We want to stake out as big a piece of the market as we can. We’re pretty bullish on this market. We’ve got 10 years of history on how to do this and really scale it. IBM runs on this stuff. We’re testing a lot of the UCC stuff on top of our existing networks right now.