Lotus in Never Land

Have IBM and Lotus execs inhaled too much pixie dust?

Late in January, Big Blue staged its annual Lotusphere conference at Walt Disney World for customers of its Lotus software unit. Right next door to Epcot, Lotus general manager Al Zollar tried to convince people that Lotus’ strategic value wasn’t just a fantasy.

But the crown jewels of Lotus have lost their luster. And as Zollar announced yet another strategic shift for Notes and Domino, Lotus’ e-mail and collaboration software, many longtime customers were wondering where the magic had gone.

The truth is, it left a while ago. As IBM slowly digested the Cambridge, Mass., software company a few years ago, Lotus lost many of its key technologists, starting with the departure of Ray Ozzie (now head of peer-to-peer software vendor Groove Networks).

Since then, a few abortive efforts have been made to bring Lotus software into the IBM Software fold, including the ill-starred “Raven” knowledge-management portal initiative announced two years ago at Lotusphere. And nearly every effort to attract developers from other technologies—including the addition of the Visual Basic clone LotusScript—has flopped.

Dissolving Java
Now, after years of attempting to align Domino with IBM’s WebSphere application server, IBM is moving toward making Domino compatible with Java 2 Enterprise Edition, essentially by transforming it into a WebSphere add-on in some future version. In fact, this announcement is something of a Java retrenchment: Lotus had been planning to board the J2EE bandwagon with the forthcoming Domino Release 6 (R6), but J2EE features have now been dropped.

That’s the last straw for some Lotus customers. “The mere fact that you now have to add something else into the mix is not sitting well with some of my customers, and they are ready to move on,” says Joseph Groh, a senior Notes developer at Cincinnati-based Innovative Consulting in an online Notes developer forum. “Domino’s being left at the curb.”

The abandoned Java technology, code-named Garnet, was based on the Apache Group’s Tomcat, an open-source Java application server, and provided for the creation of Web pages with application data through the use of JavaServer Pages. While many customers are happy to have J2EE on the roadmap, the dropping of the Java server within Domino has worried, if not angered, many developers who’ve been working with test versions of R6. “Domino has been reduced to a nonscalable data store for WebSphere, which likely will be replaced by another IBM product,” complains Les Szklanny, a software engineer at United Airlines.

IBM’s reasoning behind the move is, apparently, that the company doesn’t want to support two essentially competing technologies. But in the process, it’s abandoned a partial answer sooner for what one developer commenting on Lotus’ Notes.net discussion board called “diagram-ware.” Some developers are considering creating their own version of Garnet as part of the Notes Open Source Software project.

(All the noise has not gone unnoticed. A recent report quoted an unnamed source at Lotus as saying that no final decision has been made on the form Java will take in Release 6.)

Meanwhile, other technologies are rendering Domino and its ilk irrelevant. Even with the 50% share of worldwide revenue for collaborative software in 2000 that IDC claims Lotus has achieved, few Domino and Notes users ever use the products’ collaborative features for anything more than e-mail. Many companies were slow to move to the last new version of the Notes client and Domino server despite its many technical improvements. And increasingly, users simply bypass using Domino (or other centrally controlled “groupware”) for projects that would seem to lend themselves to Domino simply because of the support required from IT to get anything moving.

Lotus saw this trend coming a few years back when it introduced QuickPlace, Web-based software that allowed groups to collaborate in a more ad-hoc fashion than traditional Domino applications. QuickPlace also allowed teams to include people outside the organization.

But Lotus failed to capitalize on the opportunity, and now peer-to-peer software products like Groove are benefiting from that failure. Other collaborative applications from companies like Siebel have also benefited from Lotus’ lack of momentum.

Will Java wake up interest in Lotus? It’s more likely that the company’s growth in market share will come mainly from new client seats for installations on IBM’s new Linux mainframe than from a renewed interest in wiring Lotus software into electronic supply chains. And that’s not saying much.