Lotusphere 2005: Notes, Domino, and Workplace Take Center Stage

Long-time Notes and Domino customers regard Workplace with suspicion—and IBM is still having trouble positioning the relationship between the two platforms

As expected, last week’s Lotusphere 2005 user conference provided a venue for IBM Corp. to showcase the forthcoming Notes and Domino version 7, which are currently shipping as a near-feature-complete beta.

Notes and Domino users have a lot to cheer about, starting with Domino 7’s enhanced support for Web services and relational data stores, in addition to IBM’s substantially improved Domino Designer offering.

Lotusphere also gave equal time to Big Blue’s new Workplace technology stack, which—thanks to 24 months of often inconsistent messaging from IBM—long-time Lotus customers still regard with suspicion (see http://www.esj.com/Enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=1227).

At this year’s Lotusphere, IBM touted the version 2.5 release of its Workplace platform, unveiled a new Workplace Collaboration Services offering, and showcased its new Workplace Designer, which aims to bring the ease of Notes and Domino application development to the Workplace world. In addition, Big Blue introduced a new Workplace offering—Activity Explorer—designed to simplify application use and project management in knowledge-sharing environments.

For most Lotusphere attendees, the big story was, undoubtedly, the next revision of Notes and Domino, which addresses several user pain points in the form of native support for Web services standards and relational database connectivity. For the Notes and Domino faithful, Lotus veteran Ken Bisconti—who now serves as vice-president with IBM’s Workplace, Portal, and Collaboration products effort—had encouraging news.

“We’re about to be feature complete. We’re about to ship the complete beta very soon, and we’ll be announcing important improvements,” Bisconti said during a press conference with analysts and reporters. Among other improvements, Bisconti cited reduced total cost of ownership, improved efficiency, and better scalability on server hardware. “We also saw improvements in administration, so not just the horsepower, but the ability to have better administrative capabilities.”

And, yes, Bisconti said, there’s also Notes and Domino 7’s more robust support for Web services and relational database connectivity.

“We recently just added to the plethora of [Domino] options and access methods Web services support, so WSDL support is built into Notes Domino, [and] Domino Designer 7 specifically [supports] SOAP over HTTP connectivity,” he explained. “We also expanded the use of relational data in Domino applications,” such that Domino application data can be natively stored in DB2.

Workplace—A Great Leap Forward?

One of the biggest gripes Notes and Domino users who’ve looked at IBM’s Workplace offering have with that technology is the lack of an easy-to-use, rapid application-development tool for Workplace. After all, Domino Designer makes building Notes and Domino applications a piece of cake, these users say, and—thus far, anyway—IBM just hasn’t offered anything that approximates the capabilities of this offering for Workplace.

At this year’s Lotusphere, Big Blue aimed to convince users that it has done just that, showcasing the new Workplace Designer product, and positioning it as a tool that lets long-time Lotus programmers continue to use familiar Notes and Domino methods as they develop applications for Workplace.

“Workplace Designer carries forward all the great paradigms of all the great value propositions traditionally in Domino Designer,” Bisconti said. “We are preserving the skill sets and application investments that our customers have made. With Workplace designer, you’ll be able to have access to traditional Domino Designer capabilities.” Among other Domino-friendly tasks, users can tap Workplace designer to import domino artifacts into Workplace applications.

How does Workplace Designer differ from its Domino-branded brother? IBM officials position it as an environment that facilitates the creation of so-called “composite” applications—in other words, programs that aggregate data and from heterogeneous sources and present it in the context of a portal interface.

Also last week, Bisconti and other IBM officials highlighted IBM’s new Workplace Collaboration Services, a new spin on the idea of an out-of-the-box solution for e-mail, calendaring, and instant messaging: Workplace Collaboration Services also bundles electronic learning, Web conferencing, document management, and Web content management capabilities, too. On paper, it’s analogous to the WebSphere-powered Next Generation Messaging initiative that IBM first announced at Lotusphere 2003, in that both offerings aim to provide a single, more-or-less out-of-the-box solution for customers that may not already have a messaging or collaborative solution.

In other Workplace-centric news at Lotusphere, Big Blue announced Workplace for Business Controls and Reporting (WBCR), a new application-hosting service that helps customers manage documents and reports to ensure compliance with Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). In many cases, IBM officials say, WBCR can provide an inexpensive alternative to home grown SOX 404 compliance solutions because it lets organizations outsource the operation and management of the associated hardware, software, and services to Big Blue.

In Search of a Coherent Notes and Workplace Strategy

IBM officials have struggled in the past when pressed to position Notes and Domino in the context of Workplace and vice-versa. Not surprisingly, Bisconti, Lotus-cum-Workplace General Manager Ambuj Goyal, IBM veteran Buell Duncan (who heads up Big Blue’s developer relations group), and other officials were asked several variations of this question during a post-conference question-and-answer session with analysts and reporters.

So—for the record, now—just how does IBM position Notes/Domino and Workplace in relation to one another?

“If it’s a new customer and all they’re looking for is world-class messaging and collaboration solution, and that’s all they are looking for, they start with Notes,” Goyal asserted, noting that 1,500 customers recently switched to Notes/Domino from competitive solutions. “If you want to move beyond a role-based Workplace, leveraging more technologies to be able to leverage the Internet, to be able to create things like business control solutions … the best place to get started is with the Workplace technologies.”

At one point, IBM officials were asked to explain why Notes and Domino retain their Lotus branding, while Big Blue markets Workplace as an IBM-branded product. “The Lotus brand associated with Notes and Domino is a tremendous asset. It’s very, very powerful for what is a growing and vibrant community,” said Bisconti, who pledged that IBM will “continue to be very aggressive about Lotus as part of the Notes and Domino branding strategy.”

At the same time—as Goyal’s new “Workplace” job title demonstrates—Notes and Domino have been firmly subsumed by the Workplace brand.

“We’ve had tremendous feedback from the market that the Workplace brand and the Workplace umbrella across a number of IBM products is a terrific vehicle,” Bisconti continued, summing up: “Everything’s IBM. Lotus will continue as the fundamental brand for Notes and Domino, and we will create a family of products under Workplace that includes Notes and Domino and other things.”

A Tough Sell

Big Blue claims that Workplace has brought many new customers into the fold, but among existing Notes and Domino shops, IBM’s J2EE-powered messaging and collaboration platform continues to be a tough sell.

“I haven't looked at Workplace,” says a Notes and Domino veteran with a telecommunications provider based in Kansas. “Domino works well for what we want and need, and there's been no pressure to change that. I have no reason to believe that Workplace offers something I need that Domino doesn't already offer, so no thought has been given to Workplace implementation.”

Programmers, in particular, are loathe to abandon a Notes and Domino development environment many have been using for more than a decade. Marten Vosmer, a Dutch programmer who specializes in Notes and Domino freelance development, says he has looked at IBM’s Workplace offering, largely because several of his clients have expressed interest in the technology. The rub, of course, is that he hasn’t been able to successfully install Workplace, much less use it.

“I spent some time installing Workplace 1 and 2, just to see if I needed to switch from Domino to Workplace,” he says. “I did not manage to get Workplace running properly—too many problems during the installation.”

Vosmer, like many other Notes and Domino professionals, is concerned about the future of that platform. “Everybody thinks Domino will exit, so I have so much work to do because a lot Domino people are moving to WebSphere,” he says. As a result, Vosmer continues to experiment with Workplace, and looks forward to the upcoming version 2.5 release.