Migration is a dirty word in the IT industry – it usually involves some type of pain for the customer. That is why, when IBM gathered together thousands of customers and partners at its mainstream collaborative software products conference in Florida in January, it was very careful about how it used the M-word.
It is clearly wise to be cautious. When John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, warmed up the large hall of delegates with a carefully targeted selection of jokes aimed at Americans, Parisians, geeks and business men, he was warmly received. But when Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, the popular IBM collaborative product took to the stage, the loyal Lotus fans gave him a long and raucous standing ovation. The creaking product might be celebrating its fifteenth birthday, but that doesn't mean all its customers are crying out for something completely different.
The problem is this: IBM needs to reassure customers that their investment in its Lotus Notes and Domino collaborative and productivity products will be protected, despite plans to gradually integrate these applications into the new IBM Workplace platform, a set of products based on open web services standards and portal technology.
IBM is showcasing its emerging Workplace portfolio as an umbrella brand for all future collaboration products. These will be based on server-managed 'rich clients', enabling users to collaborate with text, audio and web tools. Exactly how and when Notes and Domino will fit into this vision, however, is still unclear.
Although Workplace version 2 has already shipped, it is still in the embryonic stages, with few customers. Analysts warn that many of the features are still immature, and will be difficult to implement for those customers with large amounts of legacy data. At the moment, the majority of customers are doing everything they need to do using Notes.
By leveraging portal technology and web services, IBM's strategy is to branch out beyond the limited scope of collaboration applications, such as email and web conferencing, to integrate applications and data from many different sources.
IBM's product plans may be dramatic and disruptive to some Notes users, but for IBM there is no real choice. Microsoft continues to eat into IBM's market share with its Exchange and Sharepoint products, which are evolving fast. And application suppliers such as SAP are also developing powerful Portal products that could further eat into IBM's share in the market if the technology is not developed.
At the Lotusphere 2005 conference, Ambuj Goyal, IBM's general manager of Workplace, Portal and Collaborative Software, promoted the idea of a new era of role-based collaboration.
"Workplace understands that your world is a composite of roles, and that these roles change and move with you," said Goyal. "Our objective is to enable people to make better decisions faster," he added.
But analysts at Gartner, the advisory company, believe that IBM has confused customers by offering the overlapping product families of Lotus Notes/Domino and Workplace, without clearly explaining their future.
IBM will not abandon Lotus Notes/Domino customers, says Gartner's Tom Austin, but in coming years he believes the vendor plans to use Workplace as the basis for a future version of Lotus Notes/Domino – possibly version 9 or 10. "The heretofore separate-but-equal development paths will disappear," he says.
Speaking at Lotusphere, Ken Bisconti IBM vice president of Workplace, Portal and Collaborative Products, was quick to assure customers that they do not face an either/or choice. "Notes isn't being replaced by IBM Workplace, its becoming part of IBM Workplace, and its here to stay," he said.
He likened the coming evolutionary process to changing the tyres on a car while it is moving at 60 mph down the road – a somewhat alarming proposal. This is exactly why IBM will market the changes as upgrades rather than migration.
A key enhancement of the latest Notes release, due to ship in the summer, allows customers to automatically convert applications into XML-based web services, another is a 70% improvement in server performance – all steps that are intended to close the gap between Notes and Workplace – without the user realizing.