IBM buys WebDialog, expands SameTime lineup

IBM Wednesday shook up its Web conferencing strategy adding a hosted option by acquiring WebDialogs and expanding its on-premise presence and conferencing platform Sametime.

The WebDialogs acquisition, for which terms were not announced, propels IBM into a market against Cisco and Microsoft, which also entered the market via acquisition. Cisco bought WebEx in March for US$3.2 billion, and Microsoft acquired Placeware (now Live Meeting) in 2003 for $200 million.

The IBM announcement was made at the annual VoiceCon conference.

In addition to the head-on battle with the two giants, WebDialogs’s partnerships with Skype and 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 down stream market and who has some interesting reseller options and WebDialogs fits,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. “If IBM does not capitalize on WebDialogs’s 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 giants are on a collision course to compete in the real-time communications space, but on Monday the pair held a feel good session starring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Cisco CEO John Chambers to profess their intention to collaborate, integrate and fight fair so users would not be left out in the cold.

IBM has existing partnerships with Cisco around unified communications, including a March 2007 agreement to deliver integration among their real-time clients and back-end servers, as well as, an open client framework for developers.

There is a complex web of partnerships emerging in the unified communications market that includes IBM, Cisco, Nortel, Microsoft and a host of other vendors racing to provide the front-end and back-end tools needed to support real-time communication via voice, video and text.

For IBM, whose Sametime platform dominates the on-premise market for IM, presence and conferencing, Wednesday’s 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 who don’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 counts 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, including Notes/Domino and Sametime software, the company said.

“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 midsize businesses and departments within larger organizations, Poulley said.

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 lineup, 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 cell phones or voice mail among other options, setting triggers for automatic call handling, seeing who is calling on the phone via an icon in their Sametime client, supporting soft phones on the desktop and multiple PBX and IP-PBX platforms on the back-end.

Also Wednesday, Siemens announced IBM will license elements of Siemens’ OpenScape software and integrate them within the new Lotus Sametime versions. The Siemens technology is designed to lets users stay with the current communications tools embedded in their applications regardless of their back-end telephony systems.