IBM: Ready to Play Hard in the Real-Time Collaboration Game?

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IBM gave customers a first look at the future of its Lotus Notes client in Hannover, Germany, June 14, the stated goal being to paint a picture of just how IBM plans to extend the capabilities of Lotus Notes. The announcement came none too soon—IBM, on the leading edge of collaborative technologies when it first introduced Notes more than 15 years ago, has been remarkably ineffective when it comes to getting its message out on real-time communications. Furthermore, the company has been criticized for offering a murky picture about the future of Lotus Notes and its newer Workplace technologies.

The introduction in Germany answered some questions and raised others. It ends IBM’s relative silence around presence-driven communications, but it doesn’t eliminate the confusion IBM has created around the future of its Notes and Workplace products—if anything, it makes that situation even less clear. Yet overall the software looks to be a good move for both the vendor and its users. Code-named “Hannover,” the application has a dramatically new look, refreshing in itself, but it also boasts some welcome (indeed, required) feature changes. (Note that this is not Lotus Notes 7.0, IBM’s most immediate upcoming release; Hannover extends further into the future.)

The key word for IBM here is activity-centric collaboration. “Activity-centric collaboration” is IBM’s term (direct, they say, from IBM Research), but it boils down to contextual collaboration—a concept Microsoft, Nortel and many others have been promoting for some time. The goal in either case is to let users create, manage and share information—regardless of type (e-mail, IM, PowerPoint, voice call)—around a particular issue or group of people. As mentioned, it’s not a new idea, but it’s a good one that can boost employee productivity and, if implemented well, save their companies money in the process.

In Hannover, users will get access to IBM’s collaboration tools regardless of where they’re working within Notes. And the company has caught up with the competition on presence, making it pervasive within the application, so that whenever users see a name, they can also see the presence of the contact, then click to start an IM session, write an e-mail, or call them over an IP-enabled telephone. The software will effectively give users a version of a real-time communications dashboard, similar to what Avaya, Nortel, and Siemens offer, and what Microsoft offers somewhat piecemeal today (and will, presumably, offer more coherently tomorrow). See last month's column for more on real-time dashboards. 

The new software also supports composite applications, comprising multiple components that live in the same environment and are applied to the same user interface. That will allow developers to integrate Lotus Notes with line-of-business applications to solve specific business problems and create role-based tools for employees. These applications, either client or server based, can be built using Lotus Domino Designer, IBM Workplace Designer or the IBM Workplace Collaboration Services API toolkit. IBM’s example of a finished app: A sales teams tool that combines a standard Lotus Notes collaborative application with components from sales force automation (SFA), customer relationship management (CRM) and order-entry applications.

Frankly, it’s high time IBM got into the integrated real-time collaboration game. The good news is, Hannover promises more content-management capabilities than its competitors, which bodes well for collaborative companies whose employees routinely share documents across projects or teams. Hanover will let them store and manage all the information affiliated with a project in one place (one that is decidedly not the user’s inbox, something all companies should be working to avoid).

And the vendor hasn’t lost sight of its roots: Some of the upgrades are purely e-mail centric, including new ways to view, sort and filter messages, as well as view e-mail conversation threads so they’re easier to follow and manage. The beefed-up contact management capabilities offer new tools for handling interactions, as well as more and better ways to deal with the volume of e-mail, calendar requests and other information so many users receive today.

But some features appear still to be missing, at least for the time being (remember—this was a first look at the plans for the future of the Notes client and not a demonstration of actual code; the product is expected to be previewed for customer feedback sometime in 2006). It’s not clear, for instance, how well integrated voice and Web conferencing tools will be in the next version of the software, not to mention video. Furthermore, IBM to date has not announced plans for federation with other presence sources, as Microsoft’s Live Communications Server or AOL can claim today.

IBM says it’s open to federation, but it will need to have the services available by the time the new Notes client is released to remain a viable competitor. Nemertes’ research shows that IT executives are serious about interoperability—70% call it a top priority—and we firmly believe some type of federation is required to leverage the real value of presence-driven communications. Whether it’s done through partnerships, as it is today, or through truly open standards such as SIP and SIMPLE remains to be seen, but it must be done. And with so many leading vendors taking the charge to enable such capabilities, IBM’s silence on the issue is notable.

Furthermore, the news doesn’t really clear up the existing confusion many customers have about the differences between Notes and Workplace, and where IBM is focusing its energies (and, consequently, where customers should focus theirs when it comes to settling on an upgrade path). IBM points out that Lotus Notes 7.0, the upcoming version of the company’s flagship messaging platform, leverages technologies from its Workplace software products. Hannover is intended to “build on the new capabilities coming in Lotus Notes 7,” according to the company, presumably by taking advantage of tighter integration. Furthermore, native Lotus Notes applications (including e-mail) will run in the Hannover client without any modification. Behind the scenes, IBM’s Workplace Client Technology is a new framework for building server-managed clients that support multiple user types, experiences, access points, and connectivity. The Hannover client will use this framework and be a member of the IBM Workplace family of products.

OK, but where does that leave existing Notes users? Probably the most important take-away is this: Lotus Notes 7.0 offers immediate productivity enhancements thanks to its initial integration with WebSphere Portal and IBM Workplace software products. Users of any given release, including Lotus Notes and Domino 7, are promised that they’ll be able to upgrade to the Hannover release without requiring any massive rip-and-replace effort. That’s on par with IBM’s long-standing assurances that Notes—and its loyal users—will not be made obsolete, but it doesn’t quite explain why one should choose the Workplace Client over Notes, or vice-versa; if anything, the two applications appear to be on a collision course of intersecting features and capabilities.

Still, it’s good to finally get a peek into IBM’s plans for the future. The vendor has been so silent on the presence-driven front, many of its competitors have been able to put off dealing with IBM, either as a threat or as a partner. As IBM finds its voice, the company will no doubt become more of an issue for the competition, especially when it comes to Lotus’ (often quite loyal) installed base. But for users, more specifics are critical… and still more noise wouldn’t hurt, either.

Sr. Vice President and Founding Partner, Melanie Turek, is a reknowned expert in enterprise application integration software, collaboration technologies, and business intelligence at Nemertes Research. For the past 10 years, Ms. Turek has worked closely with hundreds of senior IT executives across a range of industries. She also has in-depth experience with business-process engineering, project management, and productivity and performance enhancement.

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