Lotus targets the

IBM Corp.’s Lotus software unit this month released a new, entry-level corporate e-mail software package which the company hopes will introduce the Lotus brand to new customers and help rekindle the division’s stalled growth.

IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging, announced in January at the company’s annual Lotusphere user conference and now available worldwide, is a Web-based e-mail system aimed at the “deskless” workforce, such as production-line employees and retail clerks.

Unlike Lotus’ traditional, fully-featured messaging products, which includes its well-established Lotus Notes suite, Workplace Messaging is a stripped-down system. Simplicity is intended to be the software’s key feature, both for users and administrators, according to IBM.

The software’s price tag is also supposed to be a major selling point: for volume buyers, Workplace Messaging’s long-term cost can drop to less than US$1 per user, per month, according to IBM. The software’s retail price is $29 per user, which includes a one-year maintenance contract. In subsequent years, annual maintenance costs drop to $5.80 per user.

In January, IBM shuffled Lotus’ management, replacing general manager Al Zollar with Ambuj Goyal, who had most recently served as general manager of solutions and strategy for IBM’s Software Group. Zollar took charge of Lotus in 2000, five years after IBM acquired the company. IBM initially left Lotus to operate autonomously, but under Zollar the company stepped up integration efforts, modifying the Lotus head’s title from chief executive officer to general manager, and repositioning Lotus as one of several brands within the IBM Software Group portfolio.

A 20-year veteran of IBM, Goyal said his task is to use his deep knowledge of IBM’s software organization to add new products to the Lotus line-up, and to tap new markets for IBM’s messaging and collaboration software.

“Al’s primary role was to integrate Lotus into IBM. My role is to expand the base and to grow Lotus,” Goyal said in a recent interview. “We need to find out a way to get to more people in more ways.”

The market Lotus is aiming at with Workplace Messaging is certainly a large one – messaging and collaboration research firm Ferris Research Inc. estimates that about 30 per cent of the workforce in developed countries falls into the deskless category, totaling some 300 million employees worldwide. What’s less clear is whether the companies employing those workers really need to provision them with e-mail.

Analyst David Ferris, president of San Francisco-based Ferris Research, says he finds it hard to predict what kind of reception Workplace Messaging will find among buyers.

“I really don’t know how well it will do. It will be interesting to see. I think there’s been a need to help these deskless workers for several years now. You’d think companies would want to provide e-mail for them; the question is, how many (will want to do that), and when,” Ferris said.

IBM is quick to point out the advantages of equipping employees other than office-workers with e-mail accounts. Distributing information such as company bulletins, schedules and human resources updates electronically is cheaper and more efficient than relying on paper-based communications, it says.

Workplace Messaging is intended to be friendly to those workers unfamiliar with e-mail, with an intuitive interface and contextual help options, IBM said. The software is Web-based, accessible through a browser or any POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) e-mail client.

As IBM looks to tap a new audience for Lotus with Workplace Messaging, the product also marks another strategic shift for Lotus: More than any other Lotus product to date, it draws on technology from throughout IBM’s portfolio. The system runs on IBM’s WebSphere Application Server and relies on IBM’s DB2 database for storage. Tailored versions of both are included in the Workplace Messaging license fee.

Longtime Lotus users have been wary of IBM moves away from traditional Lotus-built technology and toward IBM components. Last year, anxiety followed IBM’s acknowledgement that future products would be built around IBM pieces such as DB2 and WebSphere, rather than Lotus Domino-centric technology.

Goyal said such an approach is critical if IBM is to turn the Lotus portfolio into a “platform for collaboration” that can be customized by ISVs (independent software vendors) and other IBM business partners. That flexibility is necessary to power future Lotus growth, and to meet customer needs for tailored collaboration and knowledge management systems, he said.

Potential buyers now evaluating Workplace Messaging include auto manufacturer DaimlerChrysler AG and a large Canadian insurance company, IBM said. While there are no minimum requirements for the number of user licenses purchased, the company expects most buyers will buy at least several thousand seats, an IBM spokesman said.

Workplace Messaging is available now in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and simplified and traditional Chinese. Later this year IBM plans to release a version supporting more than a dozen additional languages, including Danish, Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, the company said.