Lotus stakes its future on Workplace

Executives from IBM Corp.’s Lotus software unit used the opening presentations Monday at Lotus’ annual user show in Orlando to sketch out the strategy behind IBM’s year-old Lotus Workplace platform, and to reassure users that IBM won’t abandon its core of Lotus users building on the Notes/Domino architecture.

“Our strategy is to increase our leadership, not walk away from it,” Lotus general manager Ambuj Goyal said during his address.

Regarding competitor claims that the company will orphan an installed base IBM estimates at 100 million end users, Goyal answered, “Let me tell you categorically, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Still, the opening session made clear IBM’s commitment to Workplace as its future for Lotus development. The company’s plan is to steadily increase the interoperability of the Workplace architecture with that of Notes/Domino, so that current Notes users can eventually migrate to Workplace without losing access to existing Domino-developed applications.

Toward that end, IBM used the presentation to demonstrate tools in the latest version of Lotus Notes and Domino allowing developers to pull Domino applications into a portal-based Workplace deployment. The company also previewed its forthcoming Lotus Workplace Builder software, intended to simplify component-based application development.

IBM introduced last year the first version of Lotus Workplace, a new architecture for Lotus applications that draws heavily on other technology in Big Blue’s portfolio, including its WebSphere middleware technology and DB2 database. Workplace’s Java-focused design allows a flexible, modular approach to crafting an organization’s collaboration and messaging system, but the architecture is very different from the Domino-based design IBM acquired through its 1995 purchase of Lotus.

“Until recently, the factor limiting our growth has been the tight link between Notes and Domino,” Goyal said. “The solution has been to federate the system.”

That approach risks alienating customers content with their Notes/Domino systems. While repeating assurances that no one will face a forced migration, Lotus executives extolled the advantages of Workplace in Monday’s presentation, highlighting the integration advantages of its Java architecture. Connecting to other IBM and Lotus software systems, and to those from third-party developers like enterprise resource planning (ERP) leader SAP AG, will be painless, executives said.

The next step for Workplace is the planned early-second-quarter release of Workplace 2.0, featuring a new client application, which will unlock extensive offline and integration functionality not yet available in Workplace 1.0’s server-side software.

To illustrate Lotus’ proclaimed commitment to exploring new frontiers in collaboration technology, the company brought onstage “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star Patrick Stewart, who won an ovation far noisier than those accorded to Lotus’s executives. Stewart showed off a few Shakespearean monologues from his repertoire and spoke about art and creativity, loosely tying those themes back to the presentation’s premise about the future of Workplace.

One attendee said he appreciated the demonstrations of forthcoming Workplace rich-client and development features.

“Everybody has been talking about it for some time, so it’s nice to see it,” said Juergen Zirke, chief executive officer of Paderborn, Germany, software development and services firm Pavone AG, a Lotus partner.

Zirke’s company is checking out Workplace to determine how it will mesh its traditional development work with IBM’s new approach. The transition would be problem-free if connecting Domino applications with Workplace applications worked as effortlessly as it did during the presentation demo, Zirke said with a laugh.

Does he expect real-world integration to work so easily? “No, not really,” he said — though he noted that IBM has a good track record of following through on its development promises.

Another audience member said the presentation was her first look at Workplace. Checking out the system is her main reason for attending the conference, said Astrid Binc, a Lotus Notes administrator for the New York State Comptroller’s office.

“I’ve got to find out more about Workplace so I know what to recommend to the management,” Binc said. She liked some aspects demonstrated, like the all-in-one portal interface Workplace offers, but said she would need detailed information at conference sessions to get a better sense of the platform’s advantages and drawbacks.

The opening session’s length and scope made it difficult to follow, said Binc’s colleague Tina Sgambelluri. “They threw an awful lot of information out there,” she said.

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