IBM Corp. hopes to make instant messaging, until now a curiosity for most businesses, into a powerful tool for enterprise collaboration, analysts and users say.
To date, most enterprises have shied away from using instant messaging as an external communications device because of concerns that sensitive corporate data would be sent out unencrypted over public networks. As part of an upgrade to its Lotus software portfolio, IBM in October unveiled enhancements to Lotus Sametime, an instant messaging and collaborative applications suite first launched in 1999.
Perhaps the biggest addition to Sametime 3 is support for Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), an Internet Engineering Task Force-created standard for interoperability and security. SIP is a signaling protocol that opens up sessions for instant messaging.
"Sametime 3 is way ahead of the curve and far ahead of the competition as an architectural platform for contextual collaboration," says David Marshak, a senior vice president with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.
The security enhancements, which would enable users of different IM systems to securely interact, should advance the cause of collaboration that IBM began touting about 10 years ago, says Robert Mahowald, research director with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.
"IBM gets it in terms of advanced collaboration. They're very savvy about componentizing these things," he says, pointing to other Big Blue applications, such as the WebSphere collaborative software suite.
Using the Sametime IM Gateway, enterprises can share sensitive data with partners, project teams and customers in ways that are vastly more secure than other products, IBM says. The applications include administrative permissions for controlling who sees information. Users at each end of the pipe would be authenticated against a company's local directory access protocol (LDAP).
Other future contenders
Yahoo, Microsoft Corp. and America Online are among the major competitors that want to break into the market for corporate instant messaging. To date, however, IBM is the only vendor to ship a product based on the SIP standard.
IBM and AOL last year worked on interoperability trials, including server-to-server configuration using AOL Instant Messenger, but the tests went nowhere. "I think IBM just decided the path of least resistance is SIP compliance and chose to approach it from the gateway perspective," says Mahowald.
Sametime 3 also includes an improved presence-awareness feature, which enables instant messaging users to immediately determine whether a colleague is online or available for collaboration. Sametime comes equipped with a developer tool kit to embed presence awareness into applications, documents and e-mail. The tool kit enables developers to put HTML tags around a person's name so that it is highlighted in green type -- similar to a hyperlink -- if that person is available.
"It's our vision that anywhere you see a name -- whether it's in an e-mail, a Web page, a document or a buddy list -- if that person is online, the name should be actionable," says Jeremy Dies, offering manager for the advanced collaboration group at Lotus Software.
Improvements were also made to Enterprise Meeting Server, including tools for load balancing, clustering and failover. These improvements are important for companies like Kemet Corp., a Greenville, S.C.-based manufacturer of capacitors and electronic components. The company often uses the virtual-meeting tool to connect application development teams in the United States with those in Mexico.
"Our specialty in manufacturing is our virtual plant concept. Our projects may begin in one plant and finish in another plant, and collaboration is essential to that," says Matthew Henry, Kemet's chief technology strategist.
Competitors play catch-up
Sametime is a server-based product that can be accessed through a Web browser.
IBM bases its fee on the number of users in an enterprise, plus $38 per server. In exchange, the customer gets the software license and a year's worth of technical support, says Dies.
That pricing might make it tough for competitors to supplant IBM, which Mahowald calls the "undisputed king of enterprise instant messaging."
Research also shows that the market for enterprise IM remains largely untapped. Fewer than 30% of organizations have adopted a corporate IM standard, according to a September 2002 study by Osterman Research of Black Diamond, Wash. Among organizations that have adopted a standard, about 61% have settled on Sametime.
Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer in Richmond, Va.
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