New Notes on slow track

IBM Corp.’s Lotus Software Group business is once again testing the patience of the Notes/Domino faithful.

When the annual Lotusphere customer conference convenes next month in Orlando, Lotus is likely to have little to show of RNext – the next version of its Notes/Domino collaboration software – other than Beta 5. Observers don’t expect Lotus to make RNext generally available until at least next fall, more than three years after the last major release. Historically, Lotus has issued major releases every 12 to 14 months.

Technically RNext probably won’t be late because Lotus has been careful to avoid specifying a ship date until recently, and even now is simply targeting sometime in 2002.

Customers started worrying early last month when Lotus shipped Beta 4 of RNext, exposing just how far the software maker is from delivering final, or gold, code. Lotus has added 100 features since Beta 3, but users say RNext is far from complete as it is still missing anticipated administrative, performance and usability improvements.

“I’m disappointed in Beta 4,” says Thomas Wagenhauser, director of IT for Harlan Bakeries. “I’m finding quite a number of bugs. I’m also a little disappointed Lotus doesn’t have a clearer timeline for release.” Still, Wagenhauser recently purchased new licences that cover the next two years, “so I hope they get it done before then.”

Lotus plans at least two more betas with those cycles running as long as 12 weeks apiece.

“We are not off schedule,” says Ed Brill, a senior manager at Lotus. “It is a matter of opinion how close we are to gold code. We want quality to drive this release. We want a dot-zero product that is something you can deploy.”

Brill says Lotus still has about 1,000 “work items” to address in the Notes client, Domino Server and Domino Designer.

Customers say many features are missing or don’t work correctly. They say they could use promised enhancements such as clustering, support for the XML and Java Server Pages, and user interface additions.

“People are waiting for the goodies in RNext,” says Scott Wenzel, a Notes administrator for a federal agency. “Most of my most-anticipated goodies don’t yet work at all.”

If the RNext release slips to the end of next year, he says, “you’ll see some migration to other products. I admire the enormous task Lotus has undertaken, but that doesn’t help me when I’m waiting for new code.”

Changes in the application development landscape, especially with the advent of Web services and XML, are also putting the pressure on Lotus.

“There is shift in the tectonic plates of app development and Domino as an app development platform should be trying to influence that shift,” says Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group Inc. “IT people shouldn’t have a fuzzy notion of when tools and platforms will be in place because they need to plan, to chart their course.”

But on the other hand, users say they want Lotus to ensure that the code is without the sort of bugs that have plagued first releases of earlier Lotus software. Lotus has vowed that RNext won’t be generally available until its top beta testers have the software running in production.

Lotus, like many vendors, has a history of developing version enhancements that must be deployed in order to get new features. Notes/Domino R5 has had three interim feature releases in R5 as part of 23 quarterly bug fixes, the most recent coming last week.

“Lotus puts out lots of fixes and code streams, and that puts a lot of pressure on us to upgrade,” says Peter Thrall, manager of global messaging for Ingersoll-Rand Co. “I would like to see them put out an industry-ready product with RNext.”

Lotus’ Brill says the organization won’t prerelease any RNext features that can be bolted onto the R5 code. Lotus did that during protracted R5 development, adding some R5 features to the 4.x code. The result was that users upgraded what they could and many delayed migrating to R5. Approximately 20 per cent of the installed base of 80 million users remain on Version 4.6 code for which engineering support ends next month.

But Lotus CEO Al Zollar hinted earlier this year that timing and quality are at odds. “[We] are just going to try to be as thoughtful as we can about that trade-off recognizing that we’ve got to continue to provide enhancements and updates to our customers,” he said.

Company insiders say the slow and methodical progression of Notes/Domino is partly because of IBM’s extensive quality checking and tracking systems. “They are obsessed with measuring,” one source says.

RNext is the first major Notes/Domino release that IBM has heavily influenced since it took over Lotus in 1995.