Livin' la vida Lotus

Lotus has nearly achieved its transformation from being a supplier of messaging and collaboration solutions.

Lotus has nearly achieved its transformation from being a supplier of messaging and collaboration solutions.

If successful, the IBM subsidiary's new strategies will see it expand into emerging markets like knowledge management, e-learning, and application service provider (ASP) products, as well as boosting solutions for wireless devices. In keeping with the overall IBM transformational mode, Lotus is being driven towards establishing technology as an integrated service, rather than merely discrete product sets.

Naturally, much of the Lotus future drive will build on the success of Notes and Domino. However, the company reckons that its new direction is not compelled by groupware sales saturation at the enterprise level. The supplier cites Forrester Research predictions of this segment being worth $1.4 trillion by 2004. The impression cast by Lotus portrays the company moving from a position of strength, to market spaces that are direct extensions of its existing business model.

The way forward for Lotus was outlined at its recent Lotusphere 2000 conference and exhibition in Berlin, a lively event attended by around 5,000 customers and partners. It also became quickly apparent that the rejuvenation of Lotus seems to stem from the top, where president and ceo Al Zollar clearly has an appetite for the challenges ahead. And, as an IBM veteran of 23 years standing, Zollar is close to the perfect captain at the Lotus helm. He certainly looks capable of leading the complete integration of the Lotus offerings with IBM's broader e-business strategy. After all, this is what first inspired IBM ceo Lou Gerstner to drive through the $4bn purchase of Lotus in 1995.

The knowledge game

The leading edge announcement at Lotusphere was the K-station knowledge management portal - the first in a series of Lotus and IBM products aimed at this increasingly important market. Next in line is the platform code-named Discovery Server, of which we will hear more over the coming months. The K-station is a major element of the Lotus strategy, defined in the marketing slogan 'People, Places and Things'. For once, this adspeak actually describes what the product set intends to do, adding collaboration and interaction to the typical customised search and retrieve search capability of a portal.

To do this, Lotus has integrated collaborative technology like Sameplace and QuickPlace - both now in second improved versions - with its KM portal. The Domino collaboration software will also play a major role. The whole package works like this. You need some crucial information from a colleague, partner, or service supplier, so that you can quickly resolve a business issue. The portal provides you with an interface to see if the person is online and able to chat in a dialogue box, as well as the capability to pull up any relevant documents and information, or set up virtual meetings. These exchanges could take place within an organisation, across the supply chain, extranet or B2B trading exchange, among other online communities.

'The issue is closing the knowledge gap and delivering knowledge management in a hurry, which means managing collaboration and using e-learning to remove all barriers. Knowledge transparency and instant transfer is the key,' says Zollar.

Where the K-station provides the real-time, interactive user environment for KM, the Discovery Server looks like providing a lot of the management and organisational infrastructure for this strategy to be fully enabled. While many of the details remain classified, certain things can be predicted for this platform.

The Discovery Server will bring together documents, e-mail, word processing elements, relational databases, and all the people involved. The key to this next step is providing the capability to organise, classify, and manage the knowledge environment and its communities. Features like expertise locators and knowledge metrics can also be expected with the Discovery Server. Along with the K-station this platform is the establishment of a family of solutions to bring KM and e-learning techniques closer together. Lotus is busy developing its Learning Space e-learning software for this role, with the development work bringing it together with MindSpan.

The KM factor is widely being recognised as a key differentiator for success in the B2B and B2C area, where the efficient use of intellectual capital will make or break a company's fortunes, due to the quality of its decision making and timely response to business changes. The argument goes that without KM practices embedded within the organisation, the business as a whole will not have enough 'knowledge' to make the right moves.

Clearly Lotus is not working alone on this grand scheme, with integration occurring with IBM solutions like MindSpan, a KM and e-learning environment. In fact, there will eventually be a fully integrated set of Lotus/IBM solutions and services for KM and e-learning. The strategy is to make what Zollar calls the 'mind of many' a reality. Further announcements at the event reveal the building of closer ties between Domino and the all-pervasive WebSphere e-business software platform, including a single sign-on capability. Other Domino enhancements see close integration with Microsoft Outlook and Office applications.

In addition, Lotus is stressing the need to improve messaging and collaboration practices within the organisation to prepare for the introduction of KM and e-learning. The challenges and possible solutions to messaging overload were clearly described at Lotusphere by Philips International (SEE BOX).

ASPs and mobiles

The other two significant announcements at Lotusphere focused on ASP services for the small-to-medium business market, and enhanced wireless solutions to link with Wap based devices.

Lotus is rolling out a second generation ASP Solution Pack, and is busy signing up hosted service providers to its cause, with deals including the likes of Interliant, Telecom Italia, and German owned company TDS, among others. The target is the European SMB market, which represents a radical departure from the typical Lotus home territory in the enterprise.

Quite rightly Lotus cites evidence from Giga Research and other industry watchers that the SMB market is becoming one of the key economic drivers for the future, but also accepts that these companies are unlikely to buy complete collaborative environments like Domino. So the supplier is preparing the circumstances where rentable and pay as you go type systems are seen as more favourable. The ASPs themselves will be supplied Domino and Notes environments, along with applications from both Lotus and its ISV partners.

Yet there is one issue that Lotus has to resolve, according to John O'Hara, UK managing director at the company. This involves the issue of the method used to access Domino or Notes. Before the Web browser became the nearest thing to a universal client interface, Lotus would charge a licence fee for its original client access software.

While people are increasingly using the browser to link with Domino, this fee is still payable. This represents a problem for the whole industry, observes O'Hara. But he agrees that trying to reinforce this practice where it has lapsed will be slightly trickier for the ASP model and hosted collaboration services, where this licence fee could be reduced to micro payments. Ultimately this will not impact the ASP customers, but remains an issue that software suppliers will need to deal with.

For the wireless internet market, Lotus has unveiled the rather awkwardly titled combination called Sametime Everyplace Quick Start, as part of its Wireless Solutions Portfolio. Wap devices are central to this strategy. This merged product is designed to deliver highly functional wireless collaboration facilities - allowing people to do business in real time on the move. Lotus has announced that its wireless partner community has grown, and now includes Vodafone, Japanese company NTT DoCoMo, in a pan-European partnership, and Spain's Telefonica Moviles.

Philips and messaging

Philips International is developing a collaborative environment called Diamond, which stands quaintly for the 'delivery of internet applications and mail over Notes Domino'. Diamond has been conceived to better manage a massive communications infrastructure, which involves linking around 600 sites and 110,000 users more efficiently. The project is in place to prepare Philips for the introduction of knowledge management systems and practices by 2001. Philips' user base generates seven million e-mail messages per week, with the volume of data delivered reaching an amazing 700 GB. In addition, 1.5 million internet messages are generated each week, according to Frank Bustraen, vice president at Philips International.

Bustraen reports that the technology side of Diamond has given rise to far fewer problems that the cultural aspects. Back in 1999 significant parts of the disparate Philips user base were claiming that the Diamond project could never work, despite a successful proof of concept exercise the previous year. However, the Year 2000 cleansing programmes showed that parts of the e-mail system were not compliant and that, among other factors, clearly played a major part in winning over hearts and minds. Bustraen reveals that once 50 per cent of the users were signed up to Diamond, the renegades fairly quickly started to fall into place.

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