The annual IBM Lotus event called Lotusphere is in full swing this week in Orlando, Florida where it has been held since the 90s. Even when I first visited the event in 1994 and 1995, before IBM acquired Lotus, ithas been a place for deep discussion on collaboration and role for business.
The event brings together the loyal customers of IBM Lotus that have long followed and used LotusNotes but also now the expanding portfolio of products covering Web-based services, social software, widgets/mashups, phones/conferencing, email/calendar, mobility and portals. IBM Lotus came out with a group of technology announcements this week covering: cloud computing business collaboration solution called LotusLive; technology advancement of Lotus Connections operating on RIM BlackBerry; R&D efforts called IBM Vulcan to demonstrate technology that might appear in future versions of products; and IBM collaboration agenda to help organizations understand their efforts.
I did not make it down to the conference but did spend many hours reviewing the new education available on lotusknows.com and assessing their advancements compared to others in the industry. It was more than disappointing to see that IBM could not use commonly available technology for Internet broadcasting of their conference keynotes or sessions like Infor, Microsoft, Oracle, salesforce.com, SAP and others that do already. Looking at PDF of presentations afterward never is the same experience. Of course, it would have been good to use their technology to make the point sharing presentations and collaboration on the Internet is as simple as using IBM Lotus. But this was not the case and does not speak to being progressive in using their technology for an annual conference. But let’s move off the lack of collaboration and marketing of IBM Lotus and get back to the announcements and industry.
Let’s do a deep dive and let me discuss the current business and market environment and impact to IBM efforts in collaboration. The major driving areas advancing the need for business to improve their collaboration efforts are now being supported by the following factors:
First, the advancement of collaboration in business is accelerating at a feverous pace as organizations realize the productivity improvement and workforce engagement value of this technology for business. As I have pointed out, a business technology priority for 2009 and 2010 will be the advancement of collaboration on the Internet. Facebook and LinkedIn have set a certain level of expectations for employees in the workforce on what is required to be as efficient as you can be with business and personal friends collaborating on the Internet.
Second, the need for instant communications to people no matter where they are located needs to be simple and interactive.
Third, the demand for bringing information together and providing it to people in business has risen to a new level where new classes of applications that I call Information Applications -- IBM has a product called IBM Mashup Center that is focused on simplifying integration of information and services for collaboration that I have already examined (See: “IBM Mashes Information and Analytics to Support Information Accessibility“).
Fourth, the significant revolution to mobile computing and technology used by business is dramatically changing how workforces operate as I have asserted (See: “Business Mobility – Business Technology Priority“).
Last is the need to quickly bring people, process and information more tightly together using technology that can span age-based generations of workers across the enterprise, the business-to-business and business-to-consumer interfaces in a simple and streamlined manner.
Where does this leave IBM Lotus and their efforts in the market? First, IBM Lotus has many products in their collaborative technology suite including: IBM Lotus Connections as the Web-based business collaboration platform for communities and socializing on business topics and issues; IBM Lotus Sametime for collaboration and instant messaging; IBM Lotus Notes and Domino for electronic mail based needs; IBM Lotus Quickr for team based collaboration in the enterprise and Internet; Lotus Forms for electronic forms; Lotus Foundations for small business collaboration; Lotus Web Content Management for managing web content; IBM Lotus Symphony which is the IBM approach to personal productivity with documents, presentations and spreadsheets; and IBM WebSphere Portal. All of these can work semi-autonomously to each other so that organizations can get onboard to experience the technology where they need to start. Most of these require some installation and configuration but IBM is slowly migrating them to the Internet to get faster adoption and more attention by enterprises.
IBM has come to market with their cloud computing-based collaborative solution, IBM LotusLive, to address the need for making business collaboration available on the Internet compared to installing and managing onsite. IBM has brought together a range of capabilities from Web conferencing, file sharing, email, networking, instant-messaging as part of four options available. I did try to test out the product but unfortunately my company email address was already registered from signing up earlier last year and the notification for activation never made it to me and must have went into the spam bucket. No easy way to use that email but luckily I have plenty of personal email addresses to get past this glitch.
The user experience could be a lot better in setting up and getting started but I did manage to do some basic activity and calendaring with no real collaboration easily accomplished. I found the user experience to be more primitive than other solutions and less integrated to Microsoft Outlook than basic capabilities you find in Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo. I installed what they call LotusLiveChat but installs as IBM Lotus Sametime Connect 8.02 which required downloading a 160mb ZIP file that installs 130mb of software which was entirely ridiculous considering how small and simple it is too download Yahoo Instant Messenger to name just one. I never found anyone to collaborate with or easy way to find others even inside of IBM and though I was excited to hear about Sametime 8.5, well that was not available I guess since I got access to the old version.
IBM has had no easy ride with business collaboration and IBM Lotus technologies. Microsoft has grown to dominate the segment from personal productivity, enterprise portals and business collaboration software with Microsoft Office suite of tools and platform. Microsoft is also stepping forward with their 2010 version which has been four years in the making. And of course the advancement of Internet based approaches with Google, along with salesforce.com who launched Chatter to address business collaboration in the enterprise and Internet (See: “Salesforce Cloudforce – Socializing and Servicing Customers in the Clouds“) via their cloud computing platform. Now others like Oracle and Beehive have not been as progressive in marketing or adoption across enterprise but nonetheless they are Oracle and it does integrate to their middleware and database technologies. And we should not forget that Cisco has been moving rapidly into laying the foundation of ‘Unified Communications’ and layering in collaboration as well. Even recent innovation by Liaise and their business interaction technology that I assessed provides simple productivity gains without changes to your core collaborative infrastructure.
So what does all of this mean and what do I think about the announcement and IBM Lotus efforts?
IBM has their work cut out for them to address the five major trends I outlined earlier forcing business collaboration to become a top executive priority. In a very competitive landscape, one would expect IBM Lotus to be more advanced in their collaboration software suite which still is clumsy in many ways to other offerings and expectations set by technologies like Facebook and others. I believe that if IBM Lotus does not get some major changes to their product strategy in the next several years they will be further eclipsed by a whole new generation of technologies that are simpler but more sophisticated. IBM will need to iterate and release technology on a routine quarterly basis and make major strides to improve its business collaboration portfolio.
Unfortunately, my experience reviewing the latest from IBM across LotusKnows videos was that they are badly produced for resolution to the point where you could barely make out the product screens and many did not have any voice over at all, not good signs of progress. Even worse was seeing static images of products that could not even be sized properly in the Web browser for viewing without detaching them and viewing them in Microsoft Paint. I unfortunately did not have the best experience and the corny marketing embedded in the videos might seem amusing to some but just made the whole experience worse. IBM is making comedy of their business collaboration efforts but this significant generational leap forward is no joking matter. But maybe marketing collaboration technology requires corniness? I am not able to say that salesforce.com Chatter and use of a toy with teeth chattering was not that inspiring but at least they could easily demonstrate effective business usage scenarios that have significant value.
What is my take on all the announcements and IBM steps forward in business collaboration? I am not sure that IBM understands the serious ramification of this market segment and expectations of organizations along with the advancement of technologies readily available on the Internet. It definitely is not easy to learn about IBM Lotus collaboration software and has been a systemic challenge of theirs for quite some time. I hope IBM executives do a comprehensive review and do some serious re-examination of their efforts to determine if they can gain ground in this market segment and innovate as Lotus did in the 90’s where I was one of the biggest fans of their products. Until then, I recommend any sized organization do a serious evaluation and comparison of IBM Lotus products to determine if their existing capabilities and roadmap is best aligned to the needs at hand.
Mark Smith also blogs at ventanaresearch.com/blog.