Notes set to write next chapter

Although Lotus Development Corp. may be a step behind some companies as a pure Web player, the IBM subsidiary is quietly laying the foundation for the next major version of its Notes/Domino platform.

While it looks to capitalize on such trends as Web-based application hosting and outsourcing, thin-client architectures, and the promise of almost universal data interchange, Lotus is banking on its ability to remodel the Notes platform using industry-standard technologies such as native Extensible Markup Language to achieve that goal.

That approach, said industry analysts, could bode well for corporate customers who want to deploy both thick and thin clients.

“There’s an opportunity for a vendor like Lotus to say that it’s not necessary to have all, or 40,000 or 50,000, of your users using the same scheme,” said Eric Brown, an analyst at Forrester Research, a market research company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“The trick is to offer a large organization both [thin-client and full-feature collaborative options]. Lotus can offer both within the same infrastructure,” Brown said.

Rather than weighing users down with massive point releases, the company has decided to deliver new features, some of which were excluded from the initial Domino Release 5 shipment, in quarterly maintenance releases, according to Lotus officials.

The evolutionary direction of the Notes/Domino platform points toward more open features, such as directory-and object-model independence that will let users more easily tap into the platform’s benefits.

Lotus’s challenge is to simultaneously extend support for Web application standards and to burnish the core platform-specific Domino services.

“We will maintain the native Domino services while supporting external services. The goal is to be services-independent,” said Arthur Fontaine, Domino’s marketing manager.

“[But] we aren’t planning an underlying change to the Domino architecture [because] the application engine is the key in providing workflow, security, and a unified application environment. The rest [of the spectrum of data models and services] is plumbing,” Fontaine said.

The company’s goal is to make the platform less of a set of raw materials, because customers have often struggled to use more than its basic features and tailor it to their business needs, according to observers.

And, as the market rushes to adopt the application service provider (ASP) model of application outsourcing, Lotus is gearing up to counter the message of Web-centric and more narrowly focused platforms.

“We see an opportunity in the ASP model, and we’re planning to play very heavily in that market. We realize that this is a potential inflection point, if issues like security and network bandwidth can be addressed,” Fontaine said.

“Our architecture has to be able to fully use external objects, data, security, and directory services,” Fontaine said.

Having watched on the sidelines as other companies and technologies take credit for fueling emerging markets such as corporate portals, Lotus will exert more concentrated efforts in Web markets.

“Domino needs to catch on in the dot-com set. We need to show them that Domino offers an alternative and complementary architecture,” Fontaine said.

For enterprise use, Domino’s heritage allows it to span both domains and gives it an advantage over newer entrants in the market, according to Brown.

“Domino is still not the easiest thing to manage, but the pure Internet plays are more limited in going the other way,” Brown said.