Customers eye Workplace warily

While IBM Corp.’s Lotus software group blazes ahead with its Workplace vision, the company still has work to do to convince some of the Lotus faithful that the new architecture makes as much sense for them as it does for IBM.

IBM talked about its developing Workplace strategy at last year’s Lotusphere show, but at the time it didn’t have much live code to show off. This year, with the first round of Workplace products released and the second due soon, several attendees interviewed at the conference in Orlando said they’re interested in finding out more about the platform IBM calls its focus for Lotus’ future.

For those accustomed to traditional Notes/Domino development, Workplace, based on J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition), has a steep learning curve, said Manpreet Singh, chief operating officer of IT Factory A/S’s India business. IT Factory, a software and services company, develops applications around Lotus software.

Singh said his office is trying to develop a Workplace strategy. It’s had customers ask about the new technology, though no one has signed on yet for a deployment. Singh is worried about the portability of custom Domino applications and add-ons to the Workplace system.

“I’ve been talking to IBM. They say it’s practically drag-and-drop,” he said. He’s skeptical. “That’s sales talk. It’s impossible.”

Alaa El Ghatit, a knowledge-management technical strategist with Lincolnshire, Ill.-based human resources outsourcing and consulting firm Hewitt Associates LLC, is also concerned about the resources required to migrate to a system crafted around Workplace software.

“We really need a lot more information on the ROI (return on investment),” he said.

Though IBM says it won’t abandon its Notes/Domino base, El Ghatit is wary that keeping up with current technology will require following IBM down the Workplace path — a path he believes would involve significant costs for staff retraining and new hardware purchases.

“Are they just going to dump Domino into a support mode? I think there’s still some concern,” he said.

It’s the hardware costs associated with Workplace that may dissuade smaller companies from adopting the new software. Workplace’s advanced features mean its hardware needs significantly exceed those of the “extremely efficient” Domino architecture, Workplace lead architect Jeff Calow acknowledged following a conference technical session.

In the Philippines, where Definitive Solutions & Services Inc. president David Rosenthal is based, aging hardware predominates and money for new investment is scarce. He’s recommending most of his cash-strapped clients stick with Domino for as long as possible, even for new projects.

“We have a lot of old 486s kicking around,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how cheap they make the software if it requires too much hardware to run.”

Larry Bowden, IBM’s vice-president of portal solutions and Lotus products, said IBM is listening to customer concerns about Workplace and moving to address them with tools and programs intended to smooth the transition.

To reassure customers that their Lotus investments will be protected, IBM announced at the show an unusually far-sighted road map. While engineers prepare for the late 2004/early 2005 release of the next major Notes/Domino upgrade, release 7, IBM is also at work on release 8, which will mark the functional convergence of Workplace and Notes/Domino. By release 8, expected in late 2005, even complex Domino applications will be accessible via portlets from within Workplace, Bowden said.

Meanwhile, IBM is offering development tools intended to help programmers ease into J2EE, he said.

Plug-ins for WebSphere Studio are available to add to it some of the look and feel of Domino Designer, as are tools to output applications developed in Domino Designer to J2EE-consumable portlets.

“You can continue for years to use the skills you have,” Bowden said. “Over the course of the next three years I would suggest that you broaden your skill set to involve J2EE, but there’s no emergency.”

Lotus executives, including general manager Ambuj Goyal, say the impetus for IBM’s creation of the Workplace platform was a recognition that Lotus wasn’t going to win new business without offering customers a more flexible and standards-based approach to building collaboration systems.

For one potential new buyer, that’s a message that resonates. Amy Palazzolo, who is responsible for planning Ford Motor Co.’s collaboration architecture, said she came to Lotusphere to investigate Workplace as Ford evaluates options for a new infrastructure.

“Ford’s adoption of collaboration has mirrored the industry’s,” she said. “We have a lot of best-of-breed technologies mixed together, which doesn’t integrate well and gets expensive to maintain.”

Ford is still in the early stages of figuring how to streamline its messaging systems, and Palazzolo said she’s gathering information from several vendors, most notably Lotus and Microsoft Corp. Lotus’ professed open-standards focus is “certainly very appealing,” though how well Workplace software will actually work with products from other vendors remains to be seen, she said.

The Workplace direction also has its fans among current customers. MedStar Health messaging and support services manager Frank Hasting said he’s very happy with his existing Domino-based messaging system and even happier at the savings he foresees from Workplace products such as Lotus Workplace Messaging, a simplified, Web-based system intended to bring e-mail access to users that don’t need a full suite of messaging features.

MedStar now supports e-mail for 23,000 users in the hospitals it runs. Hasting would like to use Lotus Workplace Messaging to add accounts for another 14,000 workers such as doctors and nurses, who are likely to access the system through kiosks and need a basic messaging system.

“In terms of the cost pet client, the savings are dramatic — US$15 per user versus US$60,” he said. “It’s huge savings, an order of magnitude. It’s going to be great.”

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