IBM Execs Tout Unified Communications, SaaS Opportunities For Lotus Partners

So promised a number of IBM executives Sunday, addressing several hundred IBM Lotus channel partners at the Business Day portion of the Lotusphere conference in Orlando. The vows of increased support come as IBM Lotus and Microsoft are engaging in an increasingly high-stakes battle for the hearts and minds of solution providers in the hot communications and collaboration application markets.

"Lotus knows that you guys kick some serious ass," IBM Lotus general manager Bob Picciano said to applause at Lotusphere, putting a channel spin on the new "Lotus Knows" marketing campaign slogan. "I think we've made some incredible progress together. It's you that's been the secret of our success. You are making the difference."

(Picciano also announced at the conference that he is moving up to become general manager of all IBM software sales. Alistair Rennie has been named as his successor as IBM Lotus general manager, effective this week.)

Picciano said he would like to see IBM Lotus partners sell more of the company's entire product line, beyond the Notes and Domino platform.

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IBM executives made much of the potential opportunities the Lotus product line offers resellers. Picciano noted that industry-wide sales of unified communications and collaboration products are growing 12 percent annually while sales of social networking products are increasing 11 percent each year and sales of Software-as-a-Service applications are surging 20 percent annually. Lotus Sametime, Lotus Connections and LotusLive fall into those product categories, respectively.

Customers are more willing to pay a premium for services from partners "with deep expertise" such as industry-specific and advanced technology skills, Picciano said. "The way to make more money is to sell in a more consultative way."

Picciano and other IBM executives who spoke at Lotusphere Sunday morning, including Sandy Carter, vice president of IBM software channels, didn't provide a great many details about planned changes to the Lotus channel program. An announcement about IBM's software reseller efforts is coming Jan. 25. That's the start date of the vendor's Software Value Plus program, under which solution providers must have certified technical and sales staff to sell and support most IBM software products.

Carter did say that to make it easier for partners to work with IBM, the company is dropping all documentation requirements for deals under $50,000. She also said the company is developing a new online "authorization readiness" dashboard for partners to track their sales.

"They are definitely going in the right direction," said Daniel Lieber, president of Innovative Ideas Unlimited, a Wakefield, Mass.-based Lotus channel partner, referring both to IBM's product directions and its partner program efforts. He's excited about the potential for implementing hybrid on-premise/Software-as-a-Service systems that include the LotusLive suite of cloud-computing applications. But he said he needs more details about LotusLive and the channel "so we can understand what the specific value proposition is."

Steven Peters of Minneapolis-based Peters Technology Group was more skeptical, saying that Lotus execs say many of the same things to partners each year with a slightly different spin. But Stephen Thorne, senior executive account manager with Lotus channel partner Streebo of Manchester, N.H., praised the new certification requirements for software resellers. "I understand IBM is trying to deliver better value to the partners," he said. "It makes IBM put more skin in the game as well."

IBM Lotus and Microsoft are battling for customers and channel partners in the collaboration application space, both in on-premise and on-demand software. In a blog post Friday Julia White, director of Exchange product management at Microsoft, said customers are switching from Lotus Notes to Microsoft's Exchange and SharePoint and the vendor is stepping up efforts to enlist partners in those migrations. Microsoft, for example, is working with partners to develop Notes-to-Microsoft migration tools and methodologies, White said in an interview.

But IBM is set to counter with its own press barrage Monday spotlighting a number of channel partners, including Simplified Technology Solutions, Group Business Software and iEnterprises, which are reporting increased sales of Lotus collaboration software.