Taking a tour of the new features and technology in IBM Lotus Sametime V7.5.1

Examine the architectural and design changes in IBM Lotus Sametime V7.5.1, including a new IBM Lotus Sametime Connect client, a new Web conferencing UI, policies, click to call, click to chat, A/V integration, and a new SIP solution to connect to external communities, including AOL and Yahoo.

Todd A. Page, Software Engineer, IBM

Todd Page is a Software Engineer and Technical Team Lead for Sametime Support in Austin, TX. He has been with IBM since 2002 and has been fortunate enough to spend several months of his tenure traveling through the US, Europe, and the Middle East meeting with Sametime customers. Todd also co-authored a whitepaper on using SIP with Lotus Sametime.



Jennifer Kelley, Editor, eSupport Operations, IBM

Jennifer Kelley is an Editor on the eSupport Operations Knowledge Management team in IBM Software Group. She started with Lotus Support in 1991 and for many of those years, has managed, edited, and published support technotes for several software products, including Lotus Sametime, Lotus QuickPlace, Lotus Notes/Domino, IBM Workplace Managed Client, and IBM Workplace Collaboration Services. Jennifer is the mother of four children, and in her spare time, she enjoys running, is an active member of the parent council and a cub scout leader, and plays the piano.



Nancy Kruse Hannigan (nancy_hannigan@us.ibm.com), Web Content Developer, IBM

Nancy Kruse Hannigan is a Web Content Developer for developerWorks Lotus. She recently joined the developerWorks team to manage the technical articles program for Lotus. In her ten years with IBM, she has also been Publishing Services Manager for the Graphic Services group and Content Manager for the Lotus marketing site. She has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and an MBA.



22 May 2007 (First published 02 May 2006)

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to include information about Lotus Sametime V7.5.1.

IBM Lotus Sametime has long been the dominant corporate instant messaging (IM) solution with its combination of security, scalability, and reliability. It has captured a market share of over 17F million users worldwide and is used by the majority of Fortune 50 companies. Lotus Sametime has won many awards over the years, but it really makes a statement when a product that hasn’t had any major architectural changes in years is still winning awards. But let’s face it, even with this market dominance, Lotus Sametime has grown a bit stagnant with its classic yellow screen and outdated UI.

Can IBM go back to the drawing board and re-architect a product so that it is once again the gold standard in corporate real-time collaboration? This article provides you with a provocative look at the new technology and features in Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 to let you decide for yourself. We explore a multitude of features that create significant value for the product in terms of functionality, user experience, and administrative control. We also spend some time getting to know the more significant new features. For those of you who have worked with Lotus Sametime over the years, we're confident that you will appreciate the changes and hope you enjoy the ride.

Instant messaging client

Some of the most fundamental and exciting changes to Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 come in the form of a new chat client that replaces the Lotus Sametime Connect client for Desktops. The new unified IM client is built on the Eclipse open source platform. By building Lotus Sametime on top of Eclipse, it becomes easier for third-party tool providers to build plug-ins, applications, or extensions that integrate seamlessly into Lotus Sametime. An example of this is a tool provider that creates a mapping plug-in that can be integrated as a Lotus Sametime menu item, where users can choose this option to open a map showing where a chat partner is located. Another example is an application that can change a user's out-of-office settings in IBM Lotus Notes.

Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 runs on Microsoft Windows 2000 and XP, Linux, and Apple's Mac OS X version 10.4. It provides an extensive list of new out-of-the-box functionality that ultimately leads to a much richer user experience. Some of these features include click to call, click to dial, location awareness, rich text, time stamps, emoticons, spell-check, type-ahead searching, a new UI for saved chats, and an area for virtual business cards and corporate branding. Of course, words cannot do justice to the vast number of changes in Lotus Sametime Connect V7.5.1, so let's take a tour of some of these new features from a user’s perspective.

Lotus Sametime Connect V7.5.1 offers several new features that make instant messaging easier and smoother. A tabbed chat user interface lets you easily manage several conversations as it consolidates all active IM sessions in one window. Another new development is the addition of point-to-point video, which lets you easily expand an instant message to include a video or voice conversation with another user.

In addition, Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 offers integration with Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook applications, which lets you view online sessions and launch Lotus Sametime capabilities -- instant messaging, voice or video chat, and Web conferencing sessions -- directly inside of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook. Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 now provides Macintosh client support as well, providing the robut Lotus Sametime features.

Lotus Sametime Connect V7.5.1 now supports users logging into multiple Lotus Sametime communities. The client also supports re-branding, allowing you to add your company's logo to the Lotus Sametime user interface.

The Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 chat window has a fresh new look (see figure 1) as well as several new features.

Figure 1. The new Lotus Sametime chat window
The new Lotus Sametime chat window

The action bar in the chat window contains icons that allow you to:

  • Add a user to the Contacts list
  • Invite other users to an active chat
  • Capture a part of your screen to send to your chat partner
  • Call another Sametime user with the voice chat feature
  • Send a file to your partner
  • Launch Web conferencing instantly, while leaving the current chat window active

The chat window also has a new area that displays information about your chat partner. The business card area of the chat window (see figure 2) displays the user's picture (taken from the corporate directory), the user's name, the user's status and availability, and the user's location, job title, and phone number. These business card fields can also be customized by the Lotus Sametime administrator.

Figure 2. Business card area
Business card area

The transcript part of the chat window has several nice improvements, including:

  • Time stamps, which can be toggled on and off easily during a chat
  • Rich text, such as colored fonts, different-sized fonts, bold, underline, and italics
  • Emoticons, including ones that are animated

The chat transcript window also writes system messages throughout the chat. For example, if your chat partner is idle for a period of time, the chat transcript includes:

<No activity for 10 minutes>

Then when your partner returns, the chat transcript displays:

<John Doe is now active>

Lotus Sametime also shows you when your chat partner has closed the chat window by displaying:

:: John Doe has left the chat.

These system messages are also saved along with the chat transcript text and can be toggled on and off.

When you chat with a user with whom you have chatted before, the previous several lines of chat appear in a grey area of the transcript window. This can be very handy for those times when you close your chat window accidentally and want to read the last few lines again. This feature also enables you to change the way you manage open chat conversations by allowing you to close chat windows after each message without fear of losing the contents of the past conversation.

A new message toolbar is in the chat window as well (see figure 3). This allows you to set your chat text to a color, bold, italics, underline; to increase or decrease font size; to insert a smiley; or to change the text background color on your chat text. The toolbar also includes a spell checker icon if the spell checker feature has been made available by the administrator.

Figure 3. Chat window message toolbar
Chat window message toolbar

Lotus Sametime chats now allow you to send Lotus Notes links, such as document links, database links, anchor links, and view links. You can also insert hyperlinks (for example, Web site addresses).

For those of you who like to print an occasional chat, the chat window now includes an option to print the conversation. You no longer need to save a chat to print it, and when you print a chat, everything included in the chat transcript is included, such as time stamps and system messages.

Screen capturing

The client also includes a built-in screen capture utility that allows you to embed screen captures in a chat, allowing the chat partners to discuss a particular chart or graph. By clicking the screen capture icon in the chat window, you are immediately transitioned into screen capture mode where you can drag a crosshair pointer to select an area of your screen (see figure 4). After you select an area, the picture can be annotated and then automatically pasted into the transcript area of the chat so that it can easily be sent.

Figure 4. Screenshot tool
Screenshot tool

Chat history

Some great improvements have been made to the chat history function. Lotus Sametime Connect has a completely new interface for locating and retrieving saved chats, which can be accessed from a chat history icon right from the chat window. In this new UI, you can view a list of saved chats by person and can preview your saved chats. You can also sort the saved chats by person. By highlighting a person's name in the chat history window, you see a list of all recent chats that you have had with that person. You can see the date of the chat along with the start and end times of the chat as well as who initiated the chat. As you highlight each of the chats in the list, a preview of the chat is displayed in that window (see figure 5). Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 also introduces the ability to search through your chat history and to send chat transcripts as an email.

Figure 5. The chat history UI
The chat history UI

The new interface also makes it easy to print chats and to send them in an email using your default mail application.

User status

Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 provides several improvements to the user status. Prior to logging into Lotus Sametime Connect, you can select your status as well as set your status message. A new status, In a meeting, is available. This feature can be set to automatically change your status to "In a meeting" when you attend a Lotus Sametime meeting. The behavior of this status is customizable. For example, if you want to receive a new IM while in a meeting, the message box is delivered minimized rather than opening on the screen. This status is not the same as Do not disturb, which does not allow messages to be sent at all. A selective Do not disturb feature has also been added, allowing you to select certain users or groups that can send you an IM even when the status is set to Do not disturb.

Contact Search

The new Contact Search feature allows you to send a message to a particular user without having to scroll through the Contacts list to find and click that user or to send a message to a user who isn't on the Contacts list. This can save a lot of time for someone who has a large Contacts list, or it can be helpful if you need to chat with someone you really don't need to add to your Contacts list. When you enter one or more letters in the Contact Search field, you are presented with a list of users from which to choose.

The list of found users is taken from both your Contacts list and the chat history and by searching first and last names, nicknames, group names, and email addresses. If the user you are looking for isn't found in these places, you have the option of searching the corporate directory. The list returned makes business card information available by hovering over the names in the results list.

After you find a user using Contact Search, you can right-click that user's name to take action, such as chat with that user, send a file, or launch an instant meeting. You no longer need to add the user to your Contacts list to do these things.

Other enhancements

Another key enhancement is improved plug-in management, which makes it easier for you to manage the plug-ins (new capabilities) you have added to your Lotus Sametime client.

Last, the new Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 client supports integration with third-party virus scanners, allowing all files to be scanned prior to transfer. File transfer also integrates with Lotus Sametime's new policy engine and allows administrators to specify which users and groups are allowed to send files.

Web conferencing

Although Lotus Sametime Web conferencing has always provided excellent functionality in terms of application sharing and whiteboard, it was lacking in several areas, including an outdated UI, poor audio/video conferencing, and limited administrative control. Ultimately, these limitations led to administrative problems in differentiating who was allowed access to meeting functionality, but more importantly, a generally lackluster user experience in terms of connecting to and navigating within meetings. IBM has addressed all these areas in Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 and has provided a number of enhancements to the Web conference experience.

Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 now supports participation in Web conferences from users running the Macintosh operating system. You can now schedule Lotus Sametime Web conferences from a Microsoft Outlook calendar in addition to a Lotus Notes calendar. And it includes native Unix document conversion of uploaded files.

The first significant improvement has been made to the Sametime Welcome page. The old classic yellow screen is gone and has been replaced with an informative updated UI (see figure 6).

Figure 6. The Lotus Sametime Welcome page
The Lotus Sametime Welcome page

The meeting creation process has also been streamlined to minimize confusion. Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 has redesigned the UI by adding all the required fields to the first Essentials tab, thus allowing you to quickly fill out those fields to create the meeting (see figure 7). You can find additional non-required options on subsequent tabs in the Meeting Creation dialog box, including a new Slides tab that makes it easier for moderators to upload slides.

Another plus in Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 is that scheduling a Web conference automatically sends email notification with the meeting details to the meeting moderator and creator.

Figure 7. Meeting Creation dialog box -- Essentials tab
Meeting Creation dialog box -- Essentials tab

Connecting to a meeting

Another fundamental and long-needed change was made to the user experience in actually connecting to a meeting. For example, users attending Lotus Sametime meetings have often struggled with getting into a meeting for a variety of reasons, including pop-up blockers, lack of JVM, or browser configuration problems. In many cases, Lotus Sametime didn’t provide you with meaningful error messages, leaving you confused as to why you were unable to join. Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 alleviates these issues by eliminating many of the pop-ups in meetings and displaying a running dialog of useful messages that tells you what the Meeting Room client is doing and whether or not any errors are encountered.

Connecting and reconnecting to meetings has also greatly improved. In older versions of Lotus Sametime, when you connected to a meeting, you first connected to the server, and then the Meeting Room client was launched. This method works fine as long as the connection to the server is not lost, in which case your connection to the server is rarely re-established. With Lotus Sametime V7.5.1, when you launch a meeting, the meeting room is launched first, and then a connection is established. After this connection is established, it synchronizes with the rest of the meeting. If the connection is lost, the meeting resets to the startup state and automatically reconnects. The automatic reconnection is virtually seamless.

One other major connection improvement is in the methods used to connect. Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 takes advantage of more advanced tunneling algorithms, helping to maintain a more resilient, fault tolerant, and faster connection with the server. Users attending Lotus Sametime meetings are also provided with visual indicators about their connection status. If the connection is lost, the Meeting Room client remains running and reconnects in the background.

After you have entered a meeting, you are first presented with a new Welcome page (see figure 8), instead of the page showing the Share my Screen options that, in most cases, did not apply to you. Now, the Welcome page shows the critical user information, such as who the meeting moderator is, what the meeting is about, and the meeting start time. Additionally, the background of the Welcome page is customizable, allowing companies to design their own welcome page.

Figure 8. The Web conference welcome page
The Web conference welcome page

Meeting Room client

The new Meeting Room client has been completely redesigned to provide a much richer moderator and participant experience. For example, you can now select your language preference when joining a meeting, and meeting attendees now have the option of joining the meeting early and no longer have to wait for the Start time to join. Additionally, the meeting UI now contains a tabbed interface where a user can switch around to Slides, Whiteboard, or Sharing (see figure 9).

Figure 9. Web conference tabbed interface
Web conference tabbed interface

A new set of annotation tools has also been added, including a highlighter, pointer tools, better color controls, and editable text. Multiple slide sets are also supported and can be accessed by simply paging up and down through the slide sets.

See the overall Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 Web conference UI in figure 10.

Figure 10. The Web conference UI
The Web conference UI

Within Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 meetings, the UI for setting permissions has changed dramatically, making this process more intuitive. When moderating a meeting, the moderator can click the Change Permissions button to open the new Setting Permissions UI. Here, the moderator can change the default permissions for all users in the meeting or give permissions to specific individuals. With the new UI, the moderator sees two lists of names: one list of people who can view the meeting and a second list of people who can present. By clicking Add or Remove, the moderator can quickly swap names back and forth between these two lists.

After you are given permission to present, you see a button called Click to Present. Clicking this button allows you to work with slides or to share your screen. While presenting, the button changes to Stop Presenting. These UI changes make driving a meeting much more intuitive and user friendly.

Audio/video improvements

Major improvements have also been made to augment Lotus Sametime V7.5.1's audio/video capability. IBM is working with a number of industry leaders including Avaya, Avistar, Nortel, Polycom, Premiere Global Services, Siemens, Tandberg, and others to provide integrated telephony and video solutions. These partnerships allow companies to integrate their current telephony and video solutions directly into Lotus Sametime. These capabilities are integrated seamlessly for users who still follow the normal procedures for creating a meeting and selecting the audio or video meeting options, as they are presented with the option to have integrated telephony or video capabilities provided by these leading providers.

When integrated with a third-party telephony system, the new Web conference UI provides visual feedback so you can see who is talking within the meeting and provides a number of moderator options to control who is allowed to talk and to mute noisy connections (see figure 11).

Figure 11. Web conference participants list and options
Web conference participants list and options

Policy administration

The last major change to Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 Web conferencing is in the area of policy administration. Specifically, Lotus Sametime provides a policy engine that allows administrators to regulate specific functionality that people are allowed to use. For example, administrators can now specify which users are allowed to create instant meetings, to use the file transfer options and the telephony services within meetings, and to chat with users in external communities through IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway. The policies can be added for specific users or groups and can be accessed using the Administer the Server interface.


IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway

To be a player in the corporate IM space, a product must not only provide secure presence and instant messaging to a company’s internal users, it must also provide that same functionality to other companies and external public IM networks. The problem for many years was the lack of standards and proprietary protocols being used by these disparate groups. Lotus Sametime Gateway is designed to overcome these technological challenges by providing conversion services for various protocols, thus allowing full interoperability across domain boundaries. To take advantage of Lotus Sametime Gateway’s functionality, IBM offers federation with AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Google Talk.

A gateway is a product designed to provide federation, or interoperability, between presence servers in other communities that are using different directories. Gateways are also designed to provide coexistence, or awareness, between multiple presence servers that reside in the same domain and that provide awareness to the same set of users using the same directory.

Previously, IBM provided the Sametime SIP Gateway, a product introduced with Lotus Sametime V3.0 and used to provide federation by connecting to another company's Lotus Sametime environments. It used a relatively limited subset of SIP that was not interoperable with other third-party SIP products and didn't take advantage of the new middleware technology offered by IBM WebSphere Application Server.

One last clarification on the difference between the AOL connectivity that Lotus Sametime provided in earlier clients and what is provided by Lotus Sametime Gateway: In the past, Lotus Sametime provided AOL connectivity through the Lotus Sametime V2.5 and V3.x Connect client. This AOL integration was directly between the Sametime client and the AOL server and was essentially community aggregation at the client side. For example, a user logs onto both the AOL server and the Lotus Sametime server and uses a different ID for each to authenticate. Lotus Sametime Gateway is a next-generation product that is designed to provide server-side aggregation, thus allowing server-to-server awareness between multiple communities. This is a fundamental difference from prior Lotus Sametime functionality and provides much greater administrative control through policy-managed access to public and other company IM networks.

At a conceptual level, Lotus Sametime Gateway is very simple. It is an extensible platform built on WebSphere Application Server that allows real-time collaboration (RTC) communities such as Lotus Sametime and public IM communities to share presence information and to interact with each other. It is designed to receive messages from one or more communities, to check their legitimacy, to translate them if necessary, and to forward them on to their destination by using an email address (much like SMTP). The WebSphere Application Server provides a framework for protocol connectors and management plug-ins. See figure 12.

Figure 12. Lotus Sametime Gateway conceptual diagram
Lotus Sametime Gateway conceptual diagram

As you can see from the conceptual diagram, Lotus Sametime Gateway comprises three main components.

The core makes use of stable WebSphere Application Server SIP Infrastructure and allows scalability, clustering, and failover. It is responsible for starting and managing the different connectors, routing the GW messages, managing the communities, and communicating with the plug-ins.

Protocol connectors can be added to translate other protocols, such as VP (Lotus Sametime proprietary) and XMPP. Each connector supports a specific protocol, is responsible for communicating with the presence server that uses the same protocol, and receives/delivers messages to the core.

Management plug-ins provide security, policy enforcement, and extensive logging capabilities. The User Destination Locator plug-in provides mapping operations between user IDs and connectors using the user domains in the email address, much like SMTP.

The ACL Manager plug-in allows administrators to allow/disallow connections to specific domains and allows access to these domains to only specified users and groups. The Message Manager plug-in also provides APIs to allow third-party vendors to provide the ability to filter and deny messages and to provide SPIM control (much like SPAM control, but intended for instant messaging systems that receive unsolicited messages).

The Logger plug-in is responsible for logging messages about the events passing through the gateway. Administrators can control which specific events to log and can determine whether or not to log the content of the IM message.


Conclusion

We hope that you have enjoyed this overview of the new features in IBM Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 -- including Lotus Sametime Connect, the new Web conferencing UI, policy administration, click to call, click to chat, A/V integration, and a new SIP solution to connect to external communities including AOL and Yahoo. The more than one hundred changes made to improve the performance, functionality, administration, and user experience in Lotus Sametime V7.5.1 continue to make Lotus Sametime the best-in-class product and solution for corporate instant messaging and Web conferencing for years to come.

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