Big Blue's New Experiments in Real-Time Communications

A glimpse into two IBM projects that borrow from Sametime and Notes, and which could ultimately find their way into your business.
With established successes like Lotus Instant Messaging (formerly known as Sametime) and Lotus Notes in its product portfolio, IBM's position in the enterprise messaging and communications realm seems secure. But Armonk, New York-based Big Blue isn't content to rest on its laurels, and like many of the leading players in business software, the company is exploring new ways that business users might collaborate in the future.

One early, yet promising project at the company is known as Socializer. It's a prototype of an open, distributed, peer-to-peer platform with capabilities including chatting, file transfers, application sharing and broadcasting and discovery of services.

Socializer users can create profiles and exchange personal information with others, and in finding others with whom to collaborate, can search and filter by profile information.

"It allows a peer-to-peer client network that is based on location," said Marc Goubert, manager of IBM's alphaWorks site, where internal and outside developers and end-users can demo and provide feedback on prototype software. "Individuals coming into a local subnet who have a wireless device -- or who connect to a LAN somehow -- can recognize other users that have this client on their computer or PDA."

The software relies on a proprietary protocol that sends out UDP broadcast messages on the local network. But as an extensible platform based on the Open Systems Gateway Initiative (OSGi) -- which provides for a common framework for delivering services to multiple devices -- that protocol can be swapped in favor of others, like Currently, the software is available for Windows, and for PocketPC and Palm handhelds.

"One interesting application of this might be where a user walks into a conference, and because they've got access to the wireless LAN, they see services that are available immediately, like a schedule of upcoming events or speakers, or areas of interest for a particular audience," Goubert said. "That user can also instantly see which other users are using the Socializer peer-to-peer network, and start chatting with them and transferring files and sharing services, immediately."

The thinking here is that some Internet communication and collaboration services can become more useful for users if those services take location into consideration. The concept has been driving a slew of new applications (mostly dating- or community-related) for wireless handsets, such as a mobile matchmaking tool launched earlier by AT&T Wireless. It's also the idea powering WiFi instant messaging community plays like Trepia.

"This is an interesting way of looking at things -- location-based, as opposed to user-based, or using a massive registry of users like the IM systems we're used to," Goubert said.

The platform developed out of the work of one of IBM's Extreme Blue teams -- college engineering and business interns recruited by the technology giant to explore special company initiatives. Like many of IBM's experimental projects on alphaWorks, Big Blue is hoping that with input from a wider community of developers and end-users, the platform might eventually become productized or find its way into an existing product.

"This is not completely independent of the work that is going on in Sametime and Notes," Goubert said. "It obviously does not handle the kind of utility and feature set that's available from clients such as Sametime or the Notes collaboration packages, and this is really an interesting prototype of how one might expect a new utility for these types of clients."

"And it is based on OSGi, so this is a platform that allows for a couple of other methods which are not quite easily accessible within a Sametime environment -- like instant, peer-to-peer file transfer capability, which is pretty much built into the specification."

He also indicated that work on location-based projects like Socializer, when meshed with Sametime and related products, could further IBM's efforts in pervasive technology.

"Down the pipe, you're going to see ... a lot of other interesting developments from our pervasive technology group," Goubert said. "I think those would tend to rely on many of the standards we'd rely on now, [Session Initiation Protocol] and Sametime being two of the platform standards from IBM."

Expanded IBM Community Tools

IBM also is further refining its online community strategy through another alphaWorks-related project, in the form of IBM Community Tools. The services, which include integrated Sametime presence awareness and instant alerting, first made their appearance in February, on iSeries Nation, IBM's Web portal for eServer iSeries clients and partners.

Now, the services have been further refined and relaunched to a larger community: developers on IBM alphaWorks.

The software combines a number of communications tools already existing in disparate IBM products: one-to-many broadcast messaging technology in IBM MQ Event Broker, enterprise IM and presence-detection capabilities from IBM Lotus Sametime, and Web services running under WebSphere Application Server in tandem with Apache and DB2.

Specifically, IBM Community Tools enable users to broadcast questions, alerts, and messages to the community's online users; hold real-time discussions and Web presentations; and instantly distribute mass polls and receive anonymous, real-time survey results.

When registering for IBM Community Tools on one of the participating portals, users specify a number of topics in which they're interested; broadcast messages and polls can then be filtered to include only those topics.

The new release of the software in connection with its deployment on alphaWorks incorporates a few bug-fixes, some enhancements for users connecting through firewalls, and auto-launching chats.

By rolling the services out to a new portal, "it's basically a broadening and continuing of the community we started," said Bill Sweeney, program director for the IBM Internet technology team. "We thought the alphaWorks community would be an ideal community [for testing] -- it's the whole nature of being on alphaWorks, you download and test. It seemed like a very active and willing group to jump on board."

Most importantly, the expansion to alphaWorks allows the group to observe how large groups of users interact and share real-time knowledge.

"We'll see how these vastly different communities will interact, or whether they will stay within their community," Sweeny said. "The more users you have, the more valuable something like this is, and we want to raise that critical mass. When you want to interact on something, or you have a question and it's a real-time application, and more people are online, there's a greater chance you'll find what you're looking for."

As with Socializer, ICT and the insights that IBM gleans from its communities could find their way into full-fledged products. "Whether it will be a product or not, that's part of the question," Sweeny said. "We're dealing with product groups ... Sametime, MQ Series Event Broker, and Web Services people, so it could end up influencing a product, or it could end up being a service. That's the mission of our group, to accelerate applications of new Internet technologies. For the core product teams, this might be a little farther out on their agenda. But we can go and grab it and test the waters now."

In the meantime, Sweeny said the project might be expanded to a WebSphere community to further the testing and knowledge-sharing.

"We've seen increased activity with the alphaWorks launch, and we're still hoping for more," he said. "We intend to keep going on this for a while, and find a natural fit, we'll probably add another. The infrastructure's there, the capacity's there, we'll probably do it.. We'll see where alphaWorks takes us and decide from there."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

How can your business stay ahead of emerging trends and technology in real-time communications? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Fall Conference and Expo, Oct. 15 and 16 in San Jose, Calif. Sessions include "Integrating Business Applications: The Collaborative Workplace" and "Exploring IM Technical Frameworks: a Real-Time Communications Foundation."

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