January 13, 2010

Enterprise immersive software trends for 2010

Enterprise immersive software is a collection of collaboration, communication, and productivity tools unified via a 3D or pseudo-3D visual environment. In this computer-generated environment, one or more people can engage in work activities such as training, rehearsing business activities, delivering or attending presentations, collaborating on documents, brainstorming, visualizing data, building or testing prototypes, and attending conferences and trade shows. The software provides a shared, interactive, multichannel experience through presence awareness, voice chat, active speaker indication, text chat, and many other features, often including avatars. The software can be installed behind the firewall, delivered on a hardware appliance, or accessed via a software as a service (SaaS) offering.

The term “enterprise” in the category name indicates that solutions are suitable for use in the workplace, as opposed to recreational use (e.g., consumer video games and recreational virtual worlds), and are scalable, secure, and stable enough for at least some work-related use cases. Because the enterprise immersive software market grew out of four distinct ancestral origins (virtual worlds, serious games, business applications, and learning simulations), the software products in the category vary widely in features and functionality.

ThinkBalm’s predictions for 2010:

  1. The market will remain in the early adopter phase. The enterprise immersive software market has passed through the innovator phase, when nearly everyone who was experimenting with the technology was a technologist or virtual world enthusiast. In contrast, the bulk of the attention today is from early-adopter business people in functions like sales and marketing, human resources, and learning and training, as well as IT. We expect the market to remain in this phase until approximately 2013, when it will transition to the early majority adoption phase. This transition and timing assumes the industry is successfully able to “cross the chasm,” in Geoffrey Moore’s parlance.[1]
  2. Cash will be king. Enterprise immersive software vendors made significant strides in 2009 in features and functionality, scalability, and stability of their offerings. New and updated products emerged every quarter. While vendors will continue to improve their offerings in 2010, a focus on financing may curb the pace of change temporarily. Many of the vendors in this small, volatile market are actively seeking outside funding. Not all will receive the investment they require to reach their target customers or even continue operations. Executives will be out on the road, raising money and trying to encourage customers to move pilots to paid-for production deployments.
  3. The year will be marked by churn. We expect 2010 to be a busy year, with new entrants, mergers, acquisitions, and even some business closures. Most of the enterprise immersive software vendors are small. Avaya, IBM, and Sun Microsystems are larger players, but their immersive software project teams are no bigger than those of the small vendors in this space. In 2010, new vendors will enter the market and some vendors that are undercapitalized will exit, often through acquisition. Product life-cycle management (PLM) vendors are keeping an eye on this emerging market as a natural extension of computer-aided design and prototyping. Unified communications (UC) vendors are also keeping an eye on — or getting involved in, in the case of Avaya — the market. For UC vendors, immersive software could be a new way to deliver unification of services.
  4. Implementations will break out of the experiment-and-pilot ghetto. In April of 2009, we conducted a small survey of Immersive Internet advocates and implementers and found that about 2/3 of projects in 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 were what we call pre-production: early experiments or pilots.[2] In the same survey, nearly 75% of respondents (47 of 64) said their organizations either might or will increase their investment in immersive technologies in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, we expect to see more large-scale production deployments follow on the heels of 2009’s trend setters. In September of 2009, Cisco Systems held its annual sales kickoff meeting online using a virtual event platform, with 19,000 attendees.[3] IBM’s CIO office has a vision of deploying immersive technology to the entire workforce — that’s nearly 400,000 people. And BP extended its 2009 Game Changer program, which has been focused on the Immersive Internet, for an additional six months because the company was seeing so much value from it.
  5. A wave of products will move from alpha and beta into general release. While some vendors could emulate Google and offer beta products in perpetuity, most of the vendors that have early-stage products will take a more traditional route and move their enterprise immersive software products from alpha or beta into production this year. In 2010, we expect to see generally-available (GA) products released by A World for Us, Amphisocial, Avaya (assuming the company moves forward with web.alive, which it has acquired with Nortel), Linden Lab (Second Life Enterprise), VastPark, and VenueGen. We may also see a GA release of Meeting Labs, if Forterra Systems moves forward with this new hosted offering.
  6. Customers will demand more integration with existing systems. Some of the vendors already provide interfaces to various back-end business systems. Several vendors provide lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) integration: Altadyn, Avaya, IBM, Forterra, Linden Lab (with Second Life Enterprise), ReactionGrid (with Harmony), Sun Microsystems, and Virtual Italian Parks. ProtonMedia and Teleplace also integrate specifically with Microsoft Active Directory. Another common integration point is office productivity software. A World for Us, Amphisocial, Avaya, Forterra Systems, ProtonMedia, Rivers Run Red, and Teleplace allow users to upload or drag and drop Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, Google documents and spreadsheets, or other types of files into the environment. American Research Institute (ARI), Forterra Systems, and ProtonMedia commonly integrate with their customers’ learning management systems. Amphisocial, InXpo, ON24, Unisfair, and VastPark provide integration with external social networking tools, like LinkedIn and Twitter.
  7. The base feature set for the most common use cases will begin to standardize. Because the enterprise immersive software market grew out of multiple distinct ancestral origins, the software products in the category vary widely in features and functionality.[4] Despite this, we are starting to see a standard feature set emerge for small, presentation-style meetings, which is the simplest use case. All of the products that address this use case provide meeting spaces, local text chat, and either file sharing or screen sharing. Most also provide 3D meeting spaces, 3D avatars, and local voice chat. In 2010 and beyond, vendors will coalesce around a richer set of features for this use case and fairly standard sets of core capabilities for other use cases, primarily small, collaborative meetings, large meetings and conferences, and some forms of learning and training.
  8. Pricing models will go through a transformation. To date, most immersive software deployments are pilots – not large-scale production deployments. Most customers are not yet making large, strategic investments. As a result, vendors have not yet received much feedback from the market about pricing, and lots of experimentation is under way. Some products are open source and therefore free, if you don’t include the cost of building applications and supporting the environment. Some vendors charge based on number of concurrent or named users, while others charge per user, per hour. Some charge per month, others per year, still others per virtual event. Some charge a traditional up-front license fee plus an annual software maintenance fee. As the market evolves, pricing strategies will also evolve to align more closely with customers’ expectations of enterprise software, whether it is installed on-premise or delivered via a hosted service.
  9. Early attempts at mobile device support will focus on a subset of features. With a few exceptions, enterprise immersive software products do little to support mobile users. A few vendors (like ARI, Forterra Systems, and Sun Microsystems) provide telephony integration so mobile users can join immersive meetings and training sessions via voice. Several third-party vendors have created iPhone apps (e.g., Sparkle IM and Touch Life) that are slimmed-down Second Life clients. VastPark is working on apps for the iPhone and Android. Other vendors are likely to provide mobile device support for their products, as well. The mobile applications will not likely have all the same functionality as the full apps, but at minimum will provide presence information text chat, and voice chat. With the rise in the tablet computer format in 2010, which will have a larger display than mobile phones and will have built-in support for broadband Internet and Wi-Fi, we expect to see some exploration into this new hardware category, as well.
  10. New alliances will form, creating new value. We hope this is more than wishful thinking on our part. But wouldn’t it be nice if . . . enterprise immersive software vendors partnered up with unified communications vendors and virtual event platform vendors? We see many crossovers already between enterprise immersive software and unified communications. (See the January 6, 2010 ThinkBalm article, “Immersive software for meetings will expand the information worker toolkit.”) Imagine an immersion layer that presents a simple, natural user interface that truly unifies communication and collaboration among information workers. Also imagine alliances between vendors that offer 3D environments and those that offer pseudo-3D environments for large-scale events (e.g., InXpo, ON24, and Unisfair). You’d be able to augment the unfettered access provided by pseudo-3D environments for large-scale events with the collaborative power of 3D for smaller breakouts and training sessions.

Erica Driver

Erica Driver was a co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. She is a leading industry analyst and consultant with 15 years of experience in the software industry. She is quoted in mainstream and industry trade press including the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CIO, and Computerworld. Prior to co-founding ThinkBalm, Erica was a principal analyst at Forrester Research, where she launched the company’s Web3D coverage as part of her enterprise collaboration research. She was also the co-conspirator behind Forrester’s Information Workplace concepts and research. Prior to her tenure at Forrester, she was a Director at Giga Information Group (now part of Forrester) and an analyst at Hurwitz & Associates. She began her career in IT as a system administrator and Lotus Notes developer. Erica is a graduate of Harvard University.