Learn from the past, plan for the future


“My fear is we’re going to get lost in our own hype, read too many of our own press releases and forget about all the block-and-tackling hard work required to keep pace with the explosion of…computing devices.” – Papows

Depending on whom you ask, Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus Development Corp. is either gradually expanding its dominance in the groupware and messaging space with its flagship product Lotus Notes or taking a marketshare beating from rival Microsoft Corp. and its competing product, Exchange.

Though users eagerly awaited Notes Release 5, which features a new interface and a slew of Web-ready features, its original release date of mid-1998 was pushed back several times. It eventually shipped last April The jury is still out on how much of an affect, if any, the delays will have on adoption rates.

In the meantime, Lotus has announced that it will concentrate on distance or on-line learning, and the much-misunderstood area of knowledge management. And the company is already well into the development of the next release of Notes, code-named R-Next.

ComputerWorld Canada senior writer Michael MacMillan spoke with Lotus CEO Jeff Papows during his recent visit to Toronto, and asked him about the past, present and future issues facing his company.

CWC:Lotus has stated that much of its future effort will be centred on knowledge management and distance-learning – why is that?

PAPOWS: We first used the term knowledge management at Lotusphere two years ago. At the time Microsoft somewhat genuinely criticized us as having invented another word to replace groupware, because knowledge management was then, and to some degree is still today, kind of an amorphous term.

What we’ve been doing for the past several years is laying this infrastructure in place in companies where their Web topology is about second-generation message and scheduling systems intersecting with their Web application capability as a platform. And that’s replacing host- and file sharing-based mail systems. So the vision from the very early point in time was that document management, enterprise workflow planning, expertise location, more extensible sources for discovery capabilities and then ultimately on-line learning or distributed learning would be the killer applications that we build on top of this Web-based mail and application topology.

CWC:Looking back, what are your thoughts about the delays that dogged the release of R5?

PAPOWS: Remember R5 was one of these holy-grail releases where we got our eyes a little bigger than our stomach and we were late. I was quite open about it because I was determined to wait until we had a quality product. I think our industry’s got itself a black eye at times by shipping sort of quality software and unwittingly or deliberately subjecting our customer base to that product-laboratory process. And it’s not an intelligent thing to do on the scale when we’re shipping products in the tens of millions of units.

So I was pretty open about it, but it was also pretty unpopular. And not only that, I was wrong. Remember, at LotusSphere last year I said this is unpopular but I need another three or four weeks. In reality I needed another six to eight weeks. So not only was it unpopular, it was inaccurate, which I really regretted. But it was very honest and it was the right thing to do.

CWC:Given that, what’s the status of the next release of Notes, R-Next?

PAPOWS: It remains to be seen what the timeline looks like. The big question is whether you put out a 5.x release immediately following the Windows Platinum releases for both technical and competitive reasons and follow that with an R6, or whether you can rush [R6] and not go through the potential of productivity loss that comes with a 5.x release before R6. And that decision is yet to be made. It’s completely possible we’ll put out a 5.4 release or a 5.5 release.

But R-Next is going to deal with optimization for Windows 2000 because we’re very Microsoft-centric, and we have to be. So because Windows 2000 has been a bit of a moving target, there’s a lot of work going on there.

CWC:Can users make the case now for going with a bare-bones messaging system, like your own CC:Mail for instance, as opposed to a Notes?

PAPOWS: No. I’m always shocked with the length of the lifecycle on that generation of products. I mean, we’re still shipping a few hundred units of CC:Mail every quarter. I suspect what’s happening is you’ve got customers continuing deployments who are not going to make a Notes or Exchange decision pre the Y2K non-event. And that’s probably part of the reason for it. If anybody had asked me if at the beginning of the year if we’d still be shipping a few hundred thousand CC:Mail units a quarter, I would have said you’ve got to be kidding. Yet, it’s happening.

CWC:‘Y2K-non event’; sounds like you’re somewhat sceptical about the Y2K problem.

PAPOWS: Q3 is typically a tough quarter for us because Europe shuts down for a big chunk of the quarter. And this year Q3 was a gang-buster — a monster of a quarter. So if this is Y2K, then let’s do it again every year. We just got by the 9/9/99 date, which in my mind, technically, had the potential to be as significant an issue as the millennium. I didn’t see you guys writing about any disasters that I heard of. I think a lot of this is somewhat over-baked, or seems to be. I do think come March of next year you’ll see a spike in IT spending because there will be a certain amount of pent up demand. But that’s a guess.

CWC:What’s the status of the SmartSuite desktop applications?

PAPOWS: We’ve got 28 million active users. We own about 18 per cent of the unit volume of that market, which makes us kind of the Avis Rent-a-car of office productivity suites. Which isn’t where you want to be, but it’s an US$18 billion market. Bu we’ve stopped focusing on talking paper clips and eraser heads, or another row and column on the spreadsheet, which I haven’t had too many CIOs beg me for lately, and worked on Office inter-operability almost exclusively. So if you’re importing an Excel file under 1-2-3 or vice versa, we want the interoperability to be pretty well seamless.

CWC:How would you classify your relationship with Microsoft?

PAPOWS: Well, it’s very competitive. I mean, the good news and bad news is that the market for Web based collaboration is really consolidated around us and Microsoft and Novell, and all of the other smaller companies have largely fallen by the wayside, comparatively speaking. I think on a steady state basis we’re both shipping about equivalent amounts of software. The difference is we simply count what we get paid, where Microsoft tends to estimate how much Outlook was turned on as part of Office.

CWC:What about the more vocal, marketing scraps Lotus and Microsoft have engaged in?

PAPOWS: When R5 was launched in Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur and Panama, Microsoft rented a bunch of rooms in the same hotels and hired people to picket, and there was a lot of disruption.

So there’s certainly a veracious competitive appetite. And let’s face it: neither Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer or myself or my other principal executives are less then completely type-A personalities. So it’s not too surprising. But at an engineering level, I think we’re both, as we approach middle age, becoming mature enough not to jam customers in the middle of our food fight because it’s to both our companies’ detriment when we do. And that’s the difference. That was not always the case.

CWC:What’s your biggest headache these days?

PAPOWS: My biggest worry is the pending explosion in this pervasive computing model I think we’re going to be dealing with. In the Web era, in this age of e-commerce where your IT infrastructure is your direct contact with your customer, as the plethora of handheld computing devices adds to the volume of PCs, if we take our eye off the ball from either a standard’s perspective or from a reliability or scalability standpoint, we could slow this whole Web-based phenomenon down.

My fear is we’re going to get lost in our own hype, read too many of our own press releases, forget about all the block-and-tackling hard work required to keep pace with the explosions of the volumes of information that we’re going to have to manage in a more complex typology with a range of computing devices. We could screw this up for a period of time.