Mills Says IBM Will Mine UCC Market

IBM SVP Steve Mills drills down into IBM's plans for unified communications and collaboration, an emerging field that's pretty green.

SOMERS, N.Y.- As the leader of IBM's $20 billion software business, Steve Mills, senior vice president of the company's software group, has his hands in a lot of software pies. Perhaps none is as hot right now as IBM's unified communications and collaboration strategy, an technological mashup that involves sprucing up traditional instant messaging applications, such as IBM Lotus Sametime, with voice over IP, video conferencing and even social networking tools.

The point of UCC is to blast through the classically walled gardens of collaboration and communications tools to improve productivity. Mills sat down with eWEEK's Clint Boulton on March 10 after a media event at the company's offices here to discuss IBM's UCC efforts, which includes a $1 billion investment over the next three years.
I saw you launch IBM's information-on-demand strategy in New York a little over two years ago, where you positioned that software market as the next big software growth opportunity. Is unified communications and collaboration the next big software market for IBM?

It's certainly one of the growth strategies. When you're a $20 billion software business, it's not going to be about one thing, but about multiple things. Across the five major units that are part of our software business, this is clearly one of those major themes. It sits in a context. The customers want unified communications in an ever broadening context of collaboration and information access.

What do you see as the killer app for UCC, five or 10 years out?

Instant messaging in and of itself is a killer app, much the way one might view e-mail as one of the killer apps on the Web. Everyone is Web connected if for no other reason than e-mail. Behind that is general access to information. Inside the firewall, Web applications are now commonplace in business.

Lots of companies have taken that environment and just overlaid Sametime on top of it. I think people will continue to layer more and more information-centric services on that. Sametime is the fastest path for us to get to near real-time communication.

Will acquisitions be part of the $1 billion you're investing in UCC over the next few years? What kind of holes are you looking to fill?

Acquisitions are a clear part of our strategy overall. Virtually everything we're doing has room for some set of acquisitions based on the make-buy decision we go through to decide what it is we're going to add to our portfolio. We have a lot of things in the portfolio today.

Generally, what we are looking at are adjunct elements that enhance the overall solution. The basic Sametime capability came to us via acquisition [Databeam and Ubique in 1998] and then we built up the capability from there. There's a lot in the portfolio.

I would say that for the most part what you'll likely see are small company acquisitions, adding incremental feature sets, incremental data access capability. We need to integrate with lots of products, and sometimes there are third-party providers that have interesting integration technologies that can be useful. It's hard to answer explicitly.

Frankly, we have more capability today in the portfolio for unified communications than users are able to take advantage of. We're still in the early adopter stage as far as getting into more sophisticated scenarios.