Microsoft’s entrance to spark corporate IM

Riding a tide of desktop domination, Microsoft Corp.’s latest foray into presence is expected to kick-start corporate adoption of IM. Lateness to market, however, has analysts skeptical as to how the offering will compete against those of longtime collaboration players such as IBM Corp.

Office Live Communications Server 2003 – code-named Greenwich and previously known as Real Time Communications Server – was released to manufacturing last week. Microsoft sees the product’s delivery, slated for six to eight weeks, as a “key moment” in establishing IM as a business tool, said Ed Simnett, lead product manager at Microsoft.

With Live Communications Server, companies will be able to run their own enterprise IM network, address security concerns related to public services, and log and manage employees’ IM usage. The product is capable of determining whether a user is online and available for communication in Office applications and can extend this “presence” information to other applications such as custom portals.

Despite noting the significance of the product’s upcoming release, analysts believe Microsoft has some catching up to do. Market incumbent IBM has been selling Lotus Sametime – recently renamed Lotus Instant Messaging and Conferencing – for approximately five years.

“Sametime has been out for a number of years, giving IBM a significant leg up. I would expect to see the second version of Office Live Communications Server as a closer competitor to Sametime,” said Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research Inc.

But with Office on nearly every business user’s PC, Microsoft has a considerable market advantage, said Maurene Caplan Grey, research director at Gartner Inc.

“What Live Communications Server has that nobody else has…is integration with Office and SharePoint,” Caplan Grey said. SharePoint is Microsoft’s file-sharing and team-collaboration product.

New York-based law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges has 3,000 people in nine countries already using IM. The firm rolled out Sametime in 2001 and uses the IM and presence features in several custom applications, said Richard Lowe, associate director of client information services at the firm.

“We have integrated IM into our portal, our own applications, and other systems such as ERP software; so rather that just having IM conversations happening, they can happen in context,” Lowe said.

Providing IM in context is one of Microsoft’s goals. Until now, Microsoft has struggled in finding a home for its IM product, placing it first in Exchange and then toying with making it part of Windows. The company finally settled on Office as the right place.

“The Exchange IM product was not really ready for prime time. Live Communications Server is a much more fully baked idea and part of a long-term road map for their collaboration products,” said Robert Mahowald, research manager at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Still, IBM’s product has “four distinct advantages” over Microsoft’s, according to Mahowald. Sametime has a lower overall price, includes Web conferencing, has no need for an additional server, and offers modular configuration, Mahowald said.

Francis deSouza, formerly Exchange IM product manager at Microsoft and now CEO of IMlogic Inc., which sells software that overlays security and auditing tools on public IM systems, said Microsoft has had to go through “learning stages.”

“We initially thought IM was complementary to e-mail. But Microsoft learned that IM and presence is tied more to Office. A lot of usage scenarios involve Office,” deSouza said.

Even though enterprise IM products have been out for a number of years, businesses mostly use free consumer-IM products, according to Osterman. Others, such as NetJets, a seller of partial ownership of private jets, shy away from IM, blocking it at the firewall.

Having found that IM was not being used for business purposes, NetJets cut its employees off. But the company plans to look at the new Microsoft product, said Bram van der Ploeg, NetJets’ CTO.

“We are highly interested in products like Greenwich that allow much more control over the IM side. We recognize the potential benefits,” van der Ploeg said.

A remaining concern NetJets has with investing in IM is adding to the number of information streams its employees have to deal with, which already includes e-mail, voice mail, phone calls, and the custom workflow application NetJets uses, van der Ploeg said. “You add it all up, and it becomes a rather confusing set of unmanaged priorities,” he added.

At Weil, Gotshal & Manges, IM has helped employees communicate more effectively and feel closer to one another despite the miles between them. Still, this is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, said Randy Burkart, director of technology programs at the firm.

Office Live Communications Server will quickly establish a broad user base. Exchange 2000 IM users who bought upgrade rights will get the product at no extra charge. Also, loyal Microsoft customers who already use Active Directory, SQL Server, and Windows Server 2003 and those who plan to use Office 2003 will likely take the bait, analysts said.

With its muscular installed base, Microsoft may be the spark plug for enterprise IM adoption, according to analysts.

“Organizations that are fully engaged in the Microsoft environment have been waiting for Microsoft to get into the IM and collaboration game,” Gartner’s Caplan Grey said.

IDC’s Mahowald agreed but pointed out that only somewhat cutting-edge enterprises will be able to adopt it at first.

“Office Live Communications Server is definitely not for everybody. You have to do some fairly significant upgrades in order to use this thing out of the gate,” Mahowald said.

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