A lifeline for Lotus

lotus.gifJanuary is a good time to hold a user conference, because there’s not a lot of competition for anyone’s attention. At any other time of year you might not even notice how Lotus is wilting.

IBM’s Lotusphere event this week showcased two major alliances that could boost the fortunes of Big Blue’s collaboration products division, though probably not by much. The first was its joint development with SAP of “Atlantic,” which will tie in the ERP firm’s Business Suite with Lotus Notes. The second was an announcement from Research In Motion that Lotus Connections social networking software will be offered as a free download on the BlackBerry. If you look at it from a convergence perspective, SAP is supplying content and RIM is supplying a distribution channel. Neither partnership is likely to capture a lot of new Lotus customers.

Outlook shops, for example, are not about two switch sides, especially since Microsoft has been working with SAP for a much longer period on its Duet software, which offers similar functionality to Atlantic. As for RIM users, they are more likely to be impressed by the deeper improvements to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which will allow for the first time document downloading and editing. Those will be, on average, Microsoft Word documents, not Lotus WordPro documents. Even the extensions IBM is offering to core Lotus products, like Notes and Domino’s My Widgets feature, sound tired.

There are still many organizations using Lotus, of course. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Lotus specializes in the kind of technology that is increasingly being offered in low-cost versions that can be deployed on an ad-hoc, departmental basis through a browser. A lot of the Lotus portfolio would look innovative if it came from a startup armed with only a blog to market itself. Coming from IBM, it lumbers around like an awkward parent bewildered at how the next generation of application providers are scooting around it.

Lotus Mashups, a tool to let business people make their own Web applications, would have looked a lot more revelatory if smaller firms like Kapow Technologies weren’t already addressing a similar need. Like those kinds of vendors, IBM is aiming at a new set of users without checking the pulse of its traditional audience in the IT department. Does empowering everyday employees to create their own software tools really help the overall business, or will it create administration headaches?

If Lotus really wanted to do something different that would grab some additional market share, it could create technologies that would automate the workflow – particularly the approval process – that will eventually become mandatory for Web 2.0 in the enterprise. By workflow and approval I mean a system that would dynamically track any mashups being created by employees and perform a series of checks for security, compatibility or any other areas before the application could go live.

This is where Lotus could use its background as a part of IBM to its advantage. As Ovum recently pointed out, it managed to make good on all the products releases it promised last year. That’s the sign of a well-run unit, one that could offer some guidance to the companies using collaborative tools to achieve a similar kind of organizational cohesion. There could be life in Lotus yet.

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