Domino: Users Take Heart at Reports of New Versions

As IBM preps Notes/Domino version 7 for release later this year, it's clear that reports of product's death have been greatly exaggerated

For at least the past two years, the future of IBM Corp.’s Lotus Notes and Domino platform has been very much in doubt. But as IBM preps Notes/Domino version 7 for release later this year, there could be some cause for optimism.

IBM itself is as much to blame for this situation as anyone else. At its Lotusphere user conference in 2002, for example, Al Zollar, then the general manager of Big Blue’s Lotus Software Group, told attendees that the future lay with J2EE and IBM’s WebSphere Application Server. At Lotusphere 2003, Lotus announced a new WebSphere-based “Next-Gen Messaging” platform that was designed to provide simple e-mail services. For many users, this begged an obvious question: If WebSphere powered Lotus’ vision of “Next-Gen” Messaging, was Domino, then, the IT equivalent of chopped liver—that is, legacy code?

When IBM introduced its Lotus WorkPlace 1.0, which it positioned as a complement to Notes and Domino, some customers all but threw in the towel.

“IBM has cornered the market on mixed-signal messaging to its customers. Conflicting reports from IBM abound, from every layer of the organization, as to the future of Notes/Domino,” says John Dillon, a Notes programmer with Rockwell Scientific Co. Dillon, like many long-time Notes/Domino users, says he doesn’t know what to believe. “You even get confusion at the biggest shows of the year. You go to Lotusphere one year and hear ‘Notes is dead,’ then the next year they backpedal and commit to version 8 and ‘hint strongly’ that we can expect to see continued development in the R9 and R10 world even as things blend towards the Websphere world.”

Barring any major surprises at Lotusphere 2005 later this month, here’s what we do know: Notes and Domino Release 7 are on track to ship by the middle of this year, while Release 8 is currently on Lotus’ drawing board. More importantly, IBM representatives say they’re committed to supporting—and enhancing—Notes and Domino going forward. They claim that IBM isn’t pushing WorkPlace as a replacement for Domino—at least, not for customers who don’t want to make the move.

“For customers who want to stay [with Notes and Domino], we are absolutely not going to force them to move [to WorkPlace],” asserts Jim Russell, director of application development tools for Lotus. “We aren’t going to force anybody to do that if they’re unwilling.”

That’s far from a resounding vote of confidence, but for Notes and Domino users, the future isn’t necessarily a bleak one. Even though IBM officials tout WorkPlace as a J2EE-based platform that’s ideal for organizations working with next-generation application infrastructures, Big Blue has also built support for Java, J2EE, and Web services standards into Notes and Domino. In fact, when Domino 7 ships this year, Russell says, it will boast improved support for Web services standards: “I can build in Domino Web services as a first-class design element, so that I can expose some of the functions of my Domino applications to anyone who can access a SOAP-enabled Web service over HTTP, so I have a very broad integration there, so that any consumer, can access the Web service that’s exposing the domino function there.”

By Release 8, says Russell, Domino and Workplace will effectively have converged. As a result, customers who purchase Release 8 will have the option of deploying either Domino or WorkPlace. “As we build up the Workplace stream, we’re going to fold more and more of that technology together, so ultimately, we see the platforms converging,” he explains. “It’s not so much making them an offer they can’t refuse as continuing to evolve a product that they depend on, but continuing to evolve separate features and functions that end up converging with what is right now a separate platform.”

For existing Domino customers, Russell says, this is an as-you-like-it approach that gives them the option of deploying Workplace-based solutions alongside their existing Domino investments. If they’re not interested in Workplace, he says, they can choose to stay the course on classic Notes and Domino. “[These customers are] just going to keep coming with us as we evolve the platform, and they’re not going to have to do anything they don’t want to do,” he asserts.

Existing Notes and Domino users don’t necessarily take comfort in such promises, however, but some who have worked with the new Workplace technology argue that as a practical matter it simply isn’t capable of replacing Domino any time soon.

For this reason, they believe, IBM will continue to support its venerable messaging and collaboration platform for some time. If IBM’s claim of 90 million Notes and Domino customers is accurate, chances are a sizeable percentage of shops are going to stay the course on the classic Lotus offerings.

Take Ken Yee, a principal with Notes and Domino software development house KEY Enterprise Solutions. Not too long ago, Yee admits, he believed Notes and Domino weren’t long for this world. “Two years ago, the answer would have been yes when Steve Mills shot his mouth off and said Notes was archaic technology and everything should be moved to Workplace,” he observes. “IBM finally realizes that Workplace is nowhere near as easy to develop in as Notes/Domino [and] they have committed to updates until R8.”

Does Yee believe that Workplace is an acceptable replacement for Notes and Domino? Hardly. “Notes/Domino frankly targets a segment of the market that Workplace never will—the true SMB, not IBM's definition of SMB,” he comments. For this reason, Yee and other users say, Notes and Domino aren’t going anywhere.

“Frankly, I'd love to find customers willing to let me implement Workplace for them as long as they're willing to buy all the heavy hardware needed for it,” he says, explaining that J2EE applications take much more time to develop than Domino applications. “However, as a consultant looking out for the needs of my customers and trying to meet those needs most efficiently, I cannot honestly suggest that they use Workplace.”

Some users don’t care what IBM calls future versions of its messaging and collaboration software as long as Big Blue continues to provide support. Given IBM’s demonstrable commitment to doing so in the past, these users don’t feel there’s anything to worry about.

“I anticipate that there will always be a future road for Domino and Domino users. It might eventually be a merging into Workplace or it might be a tight integration with Workplace, but I expect the transition from whatever version of Domino is current to the next step to be relatively smooth, regardless of the direction,” says a Notes and Domino veteran with a telecommunications provider based in Kansas. “That's more important to me than the name of the product or if it stands independent of other systems [such as] WorkPlace or WebSphere.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.