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Microsoft, IBM prepare for unified communications market growth

Announcements by Microsoft and IBM position them as unified communications (UC) leaders, and channel partners could reap the benefits when the UC market grows next year.

A unified communications (UC) market battle is brewing, thanks to a recent IBM-Siemens partnership and a new acquisition by Microsoft.

The moves position Microsoft and IBM as the vendors with the most complete products in the emerging unified communications market, according to Frank Stinson, a practice head with IntelliCom Analytics in Union, N.J. Those vendors' channel partners may not see the benefits right away, because unified communications adoption is slow for now, according to a Gartner report issued this month. But that should change next year, when Gartner predicts that unified communications "will enter an early mainstream adoption phase."

IBM last week announced a deal to license Siemens' OpenScape software for use with Lotus Sametime, its instant messaging and Web conferencing suite. The move will make Sametime compatible with third-party IP telephony, allowing users to manage telephone calls, instant messages and other methods of communication through one desktop platform.

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Microsoft fired back this week by announcing its plans to acquire Parlano, the Chicago vendor that makes MindAlign, a group chat application. Microsoft plans to release Office Communications Server 2007 in mid-October and have MindAlign integrated by the first quarter of 2008, said Clint Patterson, the company's director of product management for unified communications.

The Gartner report, "Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, 2007," named Microsoft one of three leaders in the unified communications market, along with Nortel and Alcatel-Lucent. IBM, along with Cisco and Avaya, were named "challengers," and Siemens was one of five "visionaries."

Barry Marks, a partner with IntelliCom, said the IBM-Siemens partnership "puts them in a very competitive position with Microsoft." The key to success for both Microsoft and IBM -- and their channel partners -- will be to educate customers about the benefits of emerging unified communications technologies.

"It's incumbent upon the vendors to really clarify, almost on a customer-by-customer basis, what fits, where's it going to fit, where are they going to see the value, how does it integrate into their business," Marks said. "The next six to nine months are going to be critical to get those points across."

Patterson and Akiba Saeedi, IBM's program director for unified communications and collaboration products, both cited the trend toward a "software-centric" world as one of the main selling points for unified communications. That shift can save customers money and make it easier to integrate different vendors' products, they said.

That's especially important in unified communications, because customer sites often feature telephony, messaging, email and Web conferencing from several different vendors.

"A majority of our customers out there have a mixed environment and will for years to come," Saeedi said.

Through its agreement with Siemens, IBM will use OpenScape to create a middleware layer between Sametime and PBX systems that can control land, cellular and IP telephony. IBM's previous focus was on workflow and collaboration through its Lotus Notes, Domino and Sametime applications, but the Siemens deal provides the unified communications capabilities that were missing, Marks said.

Microsoft's approach to unified communications has been to reach interoperability agreements for Office Communications Server with PBX vendors and gateway manufacturers. Upon its release, Office Communications Server will be compatible with 90% of legacy telephony and IT environments, Patterson said.

Both approaches work for now, Stinson said. But Microsoft has plans to compete in the IP telephony market, which could help IBM bolster its relationships with other providers in the long run, he said.

In the meantime, IBM and Microsoft will have the two most complete unified communications products on the market, Stinson said. They will be "fundamentally similar," but their packaging, ease of use and integration will set them apart, he added.

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