Notes On Lotusphere: IBM Looks At The Future Of Computing

The recent conference showcased emerging products like the Malibu Personal Productivity Assistant, a contextual collaboration tool built in Eclipse, and a PC-mobile shared chat environment.
DisneyWorld is such an appropriate setting for Lotusphere, IBM Lotus' annual lovefest for its customers, developers, and business partners. There's been a strong element of fantasy in Lotus' product direct direction for the last half a dozen years. But on Jan. 22, at the conference, there was a change, as general manager Mike Rhodin announced two new social-computing products, Quickr and Lotus Connections, that could be real-world successes. Even more important, he killed an old one, the poorly defined Workplace.

Rhodin didn't make any announcements about the unmourned passing of Workplace, either from the stage during the flash-and-dazzle opening to Lotusphere 2007's 7,000 attendees or in the news conference that followed. He waited to be asked, and in his answer, I'm afraid he proved once again that hindsight is more ... flattering ... than foresight.

The original reason for Workplace, he said, was to shake up the Lotus Notes development team. Lotus needed to get some new ideas into its products, he said, and every time he brought some up with the developers they had a hundred reasons why they couldn't do them. Workplace, according to his version of history, became a stalking-horse, a way to set up a separate development team to do "out-of-band work for innovation." With the work done, he said, the innovative pieces are being folded back into the core brands.

"At the same time," he continued, "you guys [referring to the press and analysts in the room] were telling us we were confusing the hell out of you with Notes and Workplace and maybe there should just be one brand. So we made it one brand."

Truth to tell, it wasn't just the press that was confused. Lotus' customers also were confused as hell. IBM first announced Workplace about five years ago, a few years after it acquired Lotus. At the time, Workplace looked like a classic customer-base squeeze: Buy a company, force its customers onto your product (Workplace), and then dump the product (Notes), the culture, and probably most of the employees of the company you bought.

But it is a testament to the staying power, not only of Lotus Notes but of the customer community that has grown up around it, that it hasn't gone that way. What's happened is that the technology base of the product has transitioned from a proprietary client to an open source platform, Eclipse, while the proprietary server has transitioned from a closed system to a very open one that accommodates and interacts with the major innovations in computing since the Web browser — mobile devices, portals, real-time collaboration, and now social computing.

At the news conference, Lotus executives laid out five product announcements. Two of them are new and relate what Rhodin in the opening session called "born-on-the-Web" ideas about social computing to business collaboration applications:

  • Lotus Quickr will be available in two versions, a Personal Edition and a Standard Edition. The demo showed off a product that seemed to expand a personal clipping database, something like Microsoft Office OneNote, in the direction of a shared team space, allowing workers to build and manage content and bookmarks collections, and share access to them through RSS/Atom feeds, and work with them in Lotus' online/offline model and use the documents as launchpads for contextual collaboration via IM chats. Quickr integrates with Notes and several versions of Microsoft Office. The pricing model for both versions of Quickr is simple: It's free to particular groups of users. Customers for Lotus' QuickPlace team workspace product will be able to run Quickr Standard Edition for free beginning in the second quarter, and customers who have licenses for Domino Web Access, the browser-based Notes mail client, will be able to use Quickr Personal when it is available in the third quarter.

  • Lotus Connections is a more ambitious effort than Quickr. It resembles nothing so much as a MyPlace for the corporation, which is understandable, because it clearly has roots in IBM's own internal Notes-based directory called BlueBook. Connections picks up several of the very current popular tools of the social Web — tagging, profiles, communities, blogs, bookmarking — and adds "activities," a structure for bringing information from e-mails and IMs into a task-management framework that has emerged from IBM Research labs. Connections is expected sometime in the first half of this year.

The other three announcements covered well-established IBM Lotus products:

  • Lotus Notes 8 — This new version of the venerable e-mail-and-collaboration-applications platform completes Notes' transition to IBM's code base of choice, the Eclipse open source environment, and many of the attributes of Workplace, like the "IBM Editors" that work with both Open Document and Microsoft Office file formats, without giving up the ease of application development and powerful synergy between data-management and e-mail that have always been Notes' hallmark. Rhodin announced that a public beta for Notes 8 would begin next month, with release expected by midyear.

  • Sametime 7.5.1 — When AOL showed the world how powerful instant messaging could be with AIM, Lotus quickly created a hit product that combined the peer-to-peer communications technology of IM with the corporate-strength security of Notes. Sametime used the IM buddy list to establish the importance of "presence" in corporate computing — being able to see who is online, and how to reach them, but then it ran out of steam. Last year, Sametime got its groove back with version 7.5, which added lots of real-time collaboration features to integrate presence into other apps and stretch IM into useful interfaces for Web meetings and telephony. A follow-on release in the second quarter of this year, 7.5.1, will add interface improvements like point-to-point video chats, tabbed chats, integration with Microsoft Office, support for Macintosh clients in Web meetings.

  • WebSphere Portal Express 6.0 — This update of the WebSphere Portal product is aimed at small- and medium-sized businesses. It further simplifies the process of wiring applications and services into a portal environment that IBM has been working on for years. Portal Express 6.0 ships next week.

There's a lot of energy in the Lotus community, both from IBM employees and Lotus customers, around these new versions and new products, and the renewed focus on the Notes brand. Connections and Quickr seem to be aimed directly at reinvigorating Lotus' struggle for the collaboration marketplace with Microsoft — to good effect, according to Burton Group analyst Peter O'Kelly, who told the Reuters news service, "I think IBM is playing offense here."

Workplace is gone, and good riddance.