Lotus As A Web 2.0 Collaboration Platform? Not Quite Yet

But there's interesting products in IBM's new product lineup. That will help in its rivalry with Microsoft
IBM desperately wants a seat at the Web 2.0 table. Last week at its Lotusphere conference, IBM brought out new tools ranging from social networking software designed for businesses to a more user-friendly version of a Notes E-mail application that was once synonymous with "clunky."

Not an 'e-mail only' market anymore, Lotus' Ken Bisconti says

Not an "e-mail only" market anymore, Lotus' Ken Bisconti says
All the Web 2.0 buzzwords are represented: wikis, syndicated feeds, video, presence awareness, click-to-call. Beyond the features, IBM's trying to make the Lotus brand something of a mashable collaboration platform, allowing plug-ins to products such as Cisco telephony, AOL instant messaging, CRM, and Research In Motion BlackBerrys. "The collaboration market is not an E-mail-only market anymore," Lotus VP Ken Bisconti says.

Agreed. But IBM's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach could amount to a jumble of loosely coupled tools. There's a big difference between rolling out a MySpace-like tool for businesses and any businessperson ever using it. IBM's been pitching add-ons to Lotus for years, from calendars to instant messaging to presence, and they're often a hard sell. Jonathan White, CIO at Community Bancshares of Mississippi, which is moving off Notes and Domino to Microsoft Exchange 2007, says he found that only a half-dozen of the company's 600 employees used the calendar in Notes. As employees move to Exchange and Outlook, far more are immediately using the calendar function. White credits a more welcoming interface on Outlook and people's willingness to give calendars another try when presented with a new tool.

Lotus isn't dealing from strength. Lotus Notes, with 21% of the corporate E-mail market, is 12 percentage points behind leader Microsoft, according to the Radi-cati Group. Forres- ter Research analyst Erica Driver sees the momentum favoring Microsoft. With the launch of Windows Vista and Exchange 2007, it will be difficult to get the new Lotus products in front of IT decision makers.

But IBM says its new products don't depend on a Lotus installed base. "We have designed these new products to have value on their own in even the most Microsoft-centric environments," Bisconti says. Meantime, Lotus has been growing--sales were up 30% last quarter compared with a year ago, thanks in part to updates to its Sametime instant messaging and conferencing client.

Businesses know they need help improving workplace collaboration and that E-mail's not the only answer. A recent IBM survey of more than 750 CEOs found that 70% say collaboration is "critical" to success, but only 47% believe they collaborate well.

Lotus Connections is an entirely new direction for IBM: an online social network for businesspeople. Users can create an online workspace with a profile and personal blog, RSS feeds, and a feature called Activities for creating, sharing, and editing lists of documents and files critical to a specific project. It includes user authentication and support for encryption, and even lets outsiders weigh in without giving them unrestricted access to the corporate network. IBM is breaking some new ground with all the features in Connections, and social networking has potential for business uses. But only if enough people can be convinced to use it to create a vibrant network.

The Film Foundation, a Martin Scorsese-founded group dedicated to film preservation, used Connections over the past three months to create a curriculum on classic cinema. Dozens of consultants, teachers, and film experts not on the foundation's staff use the site, adding comments through Activities lists. The resulting discussion thread beats endless E-mail strings, says foundation managing director Jennifer Ahn. "You really feel like you're more of an active participant, and you're expected to respond," she says.

Another new Lotus collaboration application, similar to Microsoft's SharePoint, is Quickr, a repository and portal where teams share documents and information. It supports wikis, team and individual blogging, document tagging, and social bookmarks, and has its roots in QuickPlace, IBM's current team workspace application. Facility services company Unicco, a QuickPlace customer, is interested in Quickr's integration with Sametime IM, the ability to see networked Quickr files as if they resided on the computer's hard drive, and the possibility of using wikis and blogs to improve worker productivity, says Bill Jenkins, the company's director of IT.

But Quickr introduces yet another team collaboration and document management platform into IBM's portfolio; there's also QuickPlace. And Quickr serves as an application development platform, as does Domino. It could be more than an IT team wants to support. "There's an enormous amount of redundancy right now," Forrester's Driver says.

All the Web 2.0 finery aside, what might interest most companies is IBM's work on its E-mail workhorse: the Notes client and Domino server software. When version 8 ships this summer, preceded by a public beta next month, an overhaul of the interface and tools will turn Notes into a front end for Web applications like those from Salesforce.

The interface is critical as Lotus tries to sell new features. Sametime sits unused at many companies while employees turn to easy consumer tools such as AOL Instant Messenger. Sametime 7.5 includes features like click-to-chat and presence from within Microsoft Office applications and connectivity with public IM networks, and the next version promises tabbed chats so new dialog boxes don't show up in a new window.

Renate Tomesche, manager of global messaging for manufacturer Johnson Controls, says Sametime isn't as easy to use and stable as she would like. She welcomes interoperability with public IM services, tabbed chat, and the ability to automatically and remotely test Sametime meetings before they happen. With better integration, Johnson Controls is likely to use more features. An example: It doesn't even bother to turn on Sametime presence awareness in its Notes environment; with Domino 8 it may, since it will make presence available not only on Notes, but also on Microsoft Office and Quickr.

Sametime's new look, with video

Sametime's new look, with video
(click image for larger view)
IBM's new products will need to outshine Web applications such as AOL Instant Messenger and Google-owned wiki JotSpot, and social networks such as LinkedIn. But Microsoft's still rival No. 1. With Notes 8, IBM will add a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool the company promises will work with Microsoft file formats, the IBM-backed Open Document Format, and PDFs, letting people open and create attachments without leaving Notes. Half of IBM's portal customers are Exchange shops, Lotus general manager Mike Rhodin says, and the company's largest Sametime customer, General Electric, runs Exchange.

But Microsoft has the edge, and not only because of Exchange's E-mail momentum. New releases of Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint, and Office Communications Server deliver a lot of the functions Lotus promises. An upcoming SharePoint feature called Know- ledge Network is supposed to help people find experts inside and outside of their organizations; it searches the text of E-mail and IM conversations, and then suggests keywords for people to use to tag their profiles, making it easier for like-minded people to find them. SharePoint Server has the ability to hook into back-end systems like CRM.

IBM calls its collaboration tools strategy open, but count on Microsoft to attack Lotus' à la carte approach. "It's important to build right into our core technology so customers don't have to adopt new and additional tools but can take advantage of them from right in the technology they're already using," says Elisa Graceffo, Microsoft's product manager for collaboration and portals.

Lotus' new products represent a significant step forward. But to be a Web 2.0 force in businesses, it must overcome its far-from-cool reputation--and get people to not only buy but also use its new tools. That's no easy task.