IBM buys WebDialogs, expands Sametime line-up

Acquisition will enable competition with Cisco and Microsoft

IBM has shaken up its web conferencing strategy by adding a hosted option from its acquisition of WebDialogs and expanding Sametime, its on-premise presence and conferencing platform.

The WebDialogs acquisition propels IBM into a market dominated by Cisco and Microsoft, which also entered the market via acquisition. Cisco bought WebEx in March for US$3.2 billion (NZ$4.5 billion), and Microsoft acquired Placeware (now Live Meeting) in 2003 for US$200 million.

In addition to the head-on battle with the two giants, WebDialogs’ partnerships with Skype and Salesforce.com could prove fruitful for IBM, which could exploit them to integrate business tools and real-time communications, according to some observes.

“IBM needed to find someone with a hosted model, with some interesting partnerships, who would be attractive to the downstream market and who has some interesting reseller options and WebDialogs fits,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. “If IBM does not capitalise on WebDialogs’ relationships with resellers and partners, then this might turn out to be much ado about nothing. If they don’t get any other ecosystem around WebDialogs, then it looks like a panic move to do something versus Microsoft and Cisco.”

Those two are on a collision course to compete in the real-time communications space, but they recently held a feel-good session starring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Cisco CEO John Chambers, who professed their intention to collaborate, integrate and fight fair so users will not be left out in the cold.

For IBM, whose Sametime platform dominates the on-premise market for instant messaging, presence and conferencing, the WebDialogs acquisition fills a hole in its real-time communications and collaboration lineup that has repeatedly drawn criticism.

Now the company can provide per-use or subscription services to smaller companies which wouldn’t consider building their own Sametime infrastructure a viable option.

But in servicing that market, IBM also has likely opened up questions among its Sametime base, which consists of 18 million users, as to the future of the platform and how IBM plans to deal with the overlap in terms of features and functionality between Sametime and the WebDialogs environment.

Sametime and WebDialogs are similar in terms of features such as remote desktop control, application sharing and slide sharing.

IBM will label its conferencing service WebDialogs Unyte and integrate it with the Lotus collaboration portfolio, which includes Notes/Domino and Sametime.

“People don’t want to have multiple interfaces to get to their core collaborative services,” says Sean Poulley, vice president of business development and strategy for IBM. “Customers want greater simplicity in user interfaces.”

IBM will target WebDialogs Unyte at small and mid-size businesses and departments within larger organisations, Poulley says.

The WebDialogs service also offers a set of open APIs and IBM will encourage business partners to build on the platform. IBM will offer those options along with its newly expanded Sametime line-up, which now includes three versions: Entry, Standard and Advanced.

Lotus Sametime Entry provides basic collaboration such as IM, presence, spell check, chat history and contact list management and will integrate with a host of applications including Microsoft Outlook.

Lotus Sametime Standard is similar to today’s Sametime 7.5 offering but will include point-to-point video capabilities for Macintosh clients and support for Microsoft Office and Outlook 2007.

Lotus Sametime Advanced adds capabilities such as persistent group chat and a set of tools to facilitate finding information and sharing expertise in real time. It also will include plug-ins that let users share screens and find contacts.

Also, users will be able to manage incoming calls including routing to cellphones or voicemail, among other options. This will set triggers for automatic call handling, seeing who is calling on the phone via an icon in their Sametime client, and supporting soft phones on the desktop and multiple PBX and IP-PBX platforms on the back-end.

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