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Omnipod launches corporate IM and file sharing tools

Omnipod launches corporate IM and file sharing tools

Omnipod, which started life as a consumer instant messaging tool provider, is formally launching a corporate IM and file-sharing tool this week. Omnipod's Professional Online Desktop (POD) is a way for companies to get the benefits of IM and file sharing inside and outside the firewall, but without the complication of installing and maintaining the software, as Omnipod offers it on a hosted basis.

Context: Cofounded by chairman and CEO Gideon Stein, Omnipod started in 1999 and launched its first consumer product in the fall of 2000. It got up to 175,000 users of the POD desktop tool, but claims that was merely a rehearsal for an eventual corporate product. At the time, there were lots of companies touting similar tools, and many of them are no longer in business, such as iCast and Tribal Voice. So, the fact that Omnipod has survived this long is a feat in itself.

Products: Omnipod's hosted server software works in conjunction with a downloadable client, which was the architecture it used as a consumer product. It can now also offer the server as deployed software and is in the process of rolling that out to some of its existing customers, which have all been using hosted versions of the corporate product in beta testing.

Customers of the consumer version include Levis Strauss, Mars, Nestle and McCann Erickson. The consumer brand customers have typically re-branded the desktop as an online marketing tool, but now Omnipod is looking to upsell them the product as a corporate communications tool.

The total number of beta testers in "late pilot stage," is around a dozen, and they are Fortune 500 companies, but it is not clear if the above mentioned companies are part of that dozen or not. Early traction is expected in financial services –Omnipod has all the necessary archiving required by the SEC –pharmaceuticals and technology firms.

Technology: Users are set up through a Web-based administration tool and are placed in a hierarchy depending on criteria set by the customer. User information is imported from directories supporting LDAP or Microsoft Active Directory, and then the hierarchy can be customized. The levels of hierarchy define permissions and group people together so they can have private IM conversations not viewable by outsiders. In addition, external parties can be brought into the loop by the use of user names and passwords, and the downloading of the client can also be administered in groups.

For those companies that might balk at having their corporate IM hosted for security reasons –and that will probably be most of them –Omnipod is at pains to stress that although the messages are archived for between two and six years, Omnipod is unable to read them through the use of keys held by the customers. The big upside to having a hosted environment is the ease of installation and management.

Having started with IM and file sharing, the company will expand its offering, and other collaborative areas such as white boarding and application sharing are likely to emerge. Also likely is a version that does not require a downloaded client –it will look to develop versions that work within a browser and also possibly a version for mobile devices, as it sees demand.

Competition: Competitively, Omnipod is most likely to run into Communicator and FaceTime. Of those two, Communicator is the most similar both in terms of products and the markets it is targeting, while FaceTime tends to get used as part of a CRM system. But Communicator recently scored a major deal, with eight financial institutions now using its Hub IM product. Among the large firms, IBM/Lotus, Microsoft and Sun are the ones most aggressively pushing their IM-based collaboration tools.

There are also other small firms in the area, most with more customers than Omnipod, including Bantu and Jabber, and Cordant is trying to turn IM into a CRM tool. Omnipod will also face competition –especially in industries where security is very important –from VPN companies, but should be able to counter their stories by undercutting their price and touting its own flexibility.

Strategy: Omnipod is unofficially interoperable with the three leading IM networks: AIM, MSN and Yahoo, but no deals have been signed between them. Interoperability between those IM networks has never happened because none of the companies had sufficient business reasons to open their networks of users to the others.

Omnipod believes interoperability will happen eventually and will be based on the Simple protocol, currently working its way through the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standards group. It is probably right, but until that happens, any interaction with those external IM networks compromises the Triple DES security that POD has, since the user at the other end has a wide-open system, in terms of security. But that goes for any corporate IM systems that interact with the IM networks, such as Lotus's SameTime, which talks to AIM. As such, interoperability will not be such a big selling point until the standards –and with it, security –are agreed upon and can be implemented.

Omnipod will not say how much POD costs, but the price is based on the number of users. By way of example, Communicator's Hub IM starts at about $50 per seat. Omnipod is in discussion with a number of partners, but won't say who at this stage.

It has raised $20 million funding in total, having secured a bridge round three months ago, and will seek a series E round within the next few months, following the release of the product. Existing investors include Lexington Ventures, Mapleton Investments, the Moriah Fund and private individuals.

Assessment: There is definitely a market need for secure and interoperable instant messaging tools that also offer the archiving that companies require –and Omnipod offers all that. In a tough spending environment, competitors have found it fairly slow going. Interoperability, whether unofficial like Omnipod's or through deals with AIM, MSN and Yahoo, will not be such a big selling point until a standard –and with it, security –are agreed upon and can be implemented.

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