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Lotusphere 2006 Impressions: Notes/Domino/Sametime Redux

IBM’s annual Lotusphere event in Orlando, Florida provides an unparalleled opportunity to assess the vitality of the IBM Lotus customer and partner communities.  Lotusphere 2006 was a watershed event for many reasons, and I’ll share my impressions on the major news and implications in my next few Collaboration Loop posts.

The January 21 - 26, 2006 event was the 13th Lotusphere session.  I had the opportunity to attend the first three events as a Lotus (and then IBM, starting in mid-1995) employee, and returned, as an industry analyst, starting in 2005.  Many people have told I missed some bewildering days for IBM customers/partners in Orlando, during my eight-year Lotusphere hiatus (I didn’t attend during 1997 – 2004), but this year’s event was exceptionally upbeat, with attendee and exhibitor energy levels reminiscent of the first, wildly successful Lotusphere in December, 1993 (FYI for Lotus trivial pursuit enthusiasts, Lotus skipped 1994 and switched to the annual January routine in 1995).

To summarize my impressions from this year’s Lotusphere, and the reasons why the Orlando energy levels were so positive:

1.  The future of Notes is … Notes

2.  The future of Domino is … Domino

3.  The future of Sametime is … Sametime

4.  The future of IBM Workplace is now both comprehensible and fairly compelling

5.  The future of other traditional IBM Lotus products not in the list above is not so clear, but that’s probably good news for IBM Lotus customers who want IBM to have a sustainable, focused, and vibrant software product business -- even when confronted with increasingly credible communication/collaboration competition from Microsoft over the next few years.

The first three list items may seem a bit paradoxical to readers unfamiliar with recent IBM Lotus history, so I’ll start by explaining why I chose “Notes/Domino/Sametime Redux” as the title for this post.  To compress a complex and circuitous decade of Notes history into a single sentence, IBM didn’t appear to be entirely clear about what it wanted to do with Notes for much of the 1995 – 2005 period, and the lack of a clear Notes strategy resulted in some mixed and decidedly counterintuitive IBM Lotus business tactics.

IBM product planners started shifting their focus from the traditional Notes/Domino/Sametime products to a largely Java server- and browser client-based communication/collaboration vision during the late 1990s, emphasizing non-Lotus IBM software products -- especially DB2, Java-based integrated development environments (culminating in Rational Application Developer), Tivoli, WebSphere Application Server, and WebSphere Portal.  IBM also made significant commitments to industry standards and open source initiatives during this period, most notably including Eclipse.org (which IBM initiated), OpenOffice.org, and myriad web services- and XML-related standards efforts.

This shift was disruptive and deeply disconcerting for many long-standing Lotus customers, in part because it implicitly suggested the Notes/Domino/Sametime product franchises were considered “legacy,” and thus unlikely to see significant, ongoing product development or marketing investments.  It was also troubling to many in the Lotus community because the products being touted as next-generation alternatives, eventually known as the IBM Workplace product family, were not viable substitutes for the traditional Lotus products.  The early Workplace offerings weren’t unreasonable; they simply didn’t do everything the traditional products did, including some features that have proved mission-critical for many people, such as pervasive and robust support for disconnected users (e.g., working with both collaborative content and applications while un-networked, and then seamlessly re-synchronizing when next connected).

People who attended Lotusphere 2006, in any case, have no doubt about the current IBM Lotus strategy.  Notes, Domino, and Sametime are back at the center of the IBM Lotus strategy, and that reality was clearly reflected in the amount of time dedicated to the products during the Lotusphere 2006 keynote and breakout sessions.  IBM Workplace is no longer perceived as something vaguely defined and to which IBM seemed to want to cajole its traditional IBM Lotus customers; instead, Workplace is an umbrella brand and a set of technologies that will be exploited throughout the IBM Software Group, including the next releases of Notes, Domino, and Sametime.  In general, Workplace should be considered more an extension to the WebSphere Portal product family than any type of internecine sibling rivalry threat to the traditional IBM Lotus products.  I’ll continue my assessment of the details and implications of this shift in my next post.

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