Alas poor Lotus, we knew you well

Alas poor Lotus, we knew you well

Summary: The venerable brand Lotus is being retired. Our own David Gewirtz has been a member of the Lotus community for almost 20 years and shares his thoughts about Lotus, the brand, IBM, and the community.


The time was sometime in 1992 or 1993, and I had just moved to New Jersey from California. Back then, I was a Mac guy, having just finished running a variety of HyperCard-related projects for Apple.


The phone rang. It was an IT manager for The New York Times. She had just gotten off the phone with Apple, and they sent her to me. She was using this new thing called Lotus Notes and she really wanted to get an Apple-like interface for their internal systems.

Now, you need to understand that this was before the Web. Notes, at the time, looked almost like Web pages would look a few years down the road. It was document-oriented, had data-entry fields that rolled as your scrolled the page, and objects were often tied to the text, not the user interface. It wasn't the Web, but in retrospect, it's interesting to recall that Notes had something of the feel of Web pages, before any such thing existed.

As it turned out, there was no real way to give the New York Times Notes installation the feel of an Apple product. But as an outgrowth of talking to her, I was curious about this Lotus Notes thing. If they could run the New York Times on it, it might have some legs.

I started digging, and though it was relatively new (version 2.0 was out at the time), a bunch of very major organizations were relying on it. Think of Lotus Notes back then as a networked, multi-user, highly secured Evernote, and you've got a rough idea of what it did.

The point is, though, that there was very little information about Lotus available. There had only been one book written, there were no newsletters, and, of course, there was no Web.


That's when I started getting to know the Lotus world, and the Notes industry (as young as it was). I had just been approached by one of the leading tech industry book agents to write a tech book. I pitched the idea of a Lotus Notes book, and it got picked up by a publisher. Lotus Notes 3.0 was due out in a year, and so it was time to get writing.

In 1995, IBM bought Lotus for $3.5 billion. This was before the world of billion dollar valuations, and the Lotus purchase was big. Since then, the Lotus brand grew, IBM added Lotus Domino (the server-side of the Notes equation), and Lotus became known for collaboration.

I went on to become editor of Workspace for Lotus Notes, The Notes Report, The Notes Enthusiast, and then DominoPower Magazine, which I launched in 1998 and has been publishing daily ever since.

Each January, there was a gathering of the Lotus faithful in Orlando called Lotusphere. I started going when I lived in New Jersey, and not only was it an opportunity to meet with all the innovators working on collaboration software, it was a way to escape the winter cold. Even after I moved here to Florida seven years ago, I've still gone almost every year (I missed the year when I got married on the same week).

I've probably been to 14 or 15 Lotuspheres over the years. As cell phones became dominant, we blew out the local networks as thousands of geeks converged on the Disney Dolphin hotel. As WiFi became dominant, we blew out the network feeds that could be brought into the hotel, until IBM finally decided they needed to build an enterprise-class network for a one-week event.

The big thing, to me, about Lotus has always been the people and the companies at the heart of the Lotus community. We talk a lot about community, but these people are innovators, entrepreneurs, and some of the best enterprise technical experts in the world.


When I heard a report about how the White House had moved from Notes to Outlook, I realized not everything was as it seemed and wound up undertaking a two year investigation that eventually resulted in the book Where Have All The Emails Gone?.

In 2008, when Darrell Issa (who is now the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee) compared Lotus Notes to wagon wheels, I reported the story, which got picked up nationally. I woke early the next morning with my phone ringing off the hook, IBMers wanting to know if Issa could really have said that. I'm told he was explained the error of his ways.

I've been an entrepreneur since the late 1980s, and except for the past four or five years, when I've had the opportunity to spend more time teaching and writing, Lotus has loomed large in my life. For 15 years, from about 1993 to about 2008 or so, I could trace the majority of my income to my work as the editor of the leading Lotus-related publications.

I, like so many thousands of other entrepreneurs, developers, IT professionals, and businesses small and large have been able to support our families because of Lotus products and their value to the businesses who rely upon them.

Then, last week, IBM's Ed Brill quietly announced on his blog the sunsetting of the Lotus brand. Notes and Domino will be with us for quite some time (after all, so many companies rely on these workhorses), but the Lotus brand is officially now one with history.

UPDATE: There was some reader confusion. IBM Notes and Domino will continue, it's just the Lotus brand name that's being retired.

It's weird to feel a little choked up over a brand. But the name "Lotus" has been such a huge, positive factor in my life and the life of so many of my peers over the years that seeing it go creates a little catch in my throat.

I am hoping that the Lotus community (oh, I guess that's now the "IBM collaboration community") will continue the thrive, as will the products. But Lotus was something very special and it will be missed.

Topic: IBM


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • How about VisiCalc

    How is that doing? ;-)
  • Sob :(

    Sad upgrade to LN next version on office PC
  • The title is misleading ..

    It should read "Alas poor Lotus NOTES" since that is the focus of the story.
    • The brand Lotus goes

      And in the article there is not even a mention of 1-2-3, basically what gave birth to the company, just Notes and Domino which you've never seen unless you worked in an office that used it...
      • I agree

        To me Lotus means Lotus 1-2-3. It was the most important application I used during the first 10 years of my career.
      • I know you are not going to believe this but

        I still use Lotus 1-2-3 (97) as a database. I can search data in every worksheet in all the open workbooks I have. Excel even now cannot do that.
  • I am confused

    What do you mean by retiring?
    You mean just brand Lotus is removed and hence future version of Lotus Notes will be called as IBM Notes?
    You mean IBM won't continue to develop or release new Notes?
    You mean IBM won't sell any new Notes and discontinue support for it in couple of years for existing implementations?

    Be bit more specific!
    • IBM Notes and Domino will continue

      It's just the Lotus brand that's being retired, not the software. Sorry if that wasn't clear.
      David Gewirtz
      • Disappointing

        I'll have to put the party hats and champagne away if the end of Lotus doesn't mean the end of Lotus Goats.
  • Lotus's long slow crawl towards the grave!

    I used to be a contractor to Lotus back in the late 90's after IBM purchased them. I was a technical marketing rep for the large VARs (CDW, Avnet, Insight, Ingram Micro), and what I learned was that Lotus internally was a mess. The account reps they hired straight from the University of Boston had no business experience let alone ANY I.T. knowledge. They mishandled accounts and Lotus had no idea how to sell the Notes vision. Back in the day Notes could run circles around Exchange in scalability and use, but the Lotus division was horrible at presenting its message.

    PS - Before handling the VAR accounts I was in charge of southwest region for retail and saw Microsoft kick the crap out of Lotus SmartSuite (which had 1-2-3). It was so frustrating....even when they tried to integrate it with IBM ViaVoice (horrible name) they couldn't stop the Microsoft juggernaut.
    • Microsoft Stayed Focused

      You make an excellent point. IMHO, Microsoft triumphed, not only over Lotus/IBM but also over Borland, WordPerfect, and Corel, because they stayed focused on their customers. While Microsoft's inferior software steadily gained in quality and their sales force clearly addressed customer needs, their competitors flailed about, lurching from The Next Great Thing to the Initiative That Will Save Us while pinching pennies in the worst places and treating their increasingly disaffected customers as enemies.

      Wish it hadn't happened that way. Word 2010 still hasn't quite caught up with WordPerfect from ten years ago, and Paradox remains a wonder to behold. But Microsoft won because they stayed focused with a clear vision. The other guys didn't do that, and they lost.
  • Sad day, Indeed

    Lotus mail 4.1 on an os2 warp 4 server was top notch, top notch!
  • They should retire Notes too.

    What a horrible piece of software.
  • Back in the day ...

    ... when I deployed & administered Lotus Notes (circa late '90s), we fairly soon gave it the nickname No Load Goats. It was frequently cantakerous and unresponsive. A few years later, the company converted to Exchange.
  • Ray Ozzie

    Does anyone think the loss of Ray Ozzie to Notes had a profound effect on it dying a slow death?
  • I was there in the 90's. IBM dropped the ball on Lotus BIG TIME !!

    I was there in the 90's a die hard C and C++ programmer who happened to stumble on a couple of gigantic Lotus Note Projects which eventually took over my life for a few years. I was there when Microsoft was sending out the "Evangelists" which tried to connect with executives and convince them that Outlook and Exchange used to the the same thing that Notes did. A top to bottom approach. They were fierce. However, no matter what the competition was IBM dropped the ball big time. One of the main reasons that Lotus Notes and Domino did not survive is the simple fact that after all these years in the market IBM did not make a relational database as a native option in the Notes Engine. Create database---> Option A: Use Document Based model or Option B: Use Relational model ? I am not saying that we didn't have the connectors or the ability to integrate with any database available. But if it relational concepts became native to the product and it was tightly integrated in the designer then the question of building something outside Notes would become trivial. As a Systems Architect for David's Bridal back in the late 90's even though I was in love with this product called Lotus Notes I was always properly advising my company or clients for that matter what should be developed in Notes and what should not. The latter always with a very heavy heart. What wasn't developed in Notes went usually the Microsoft way. The rest of the store is known. Huge lack of vision from IBM. Huge. One of these days I may write about it officially.
  • IBM just doesn't care about Notes

    You would think that IBM would make more of an effort after spending billions of 1990s dollars buying Lotus. You would think they would care about losing customers with thousands of users. Apparently not, I have seen it firsthand. I also see their advertising in the trade magazines. I actually do no even understand WHAT they are trying to say with the latest ads, but the best part is they seem to be targeting the collaboration market and Notes is NOT EVEN MENTIONED IN THE ADS! They are unwilling to adapt their business model either. For what they charge clients for IBM consultants to work on Notes projects the customers could hire and train entire departments and do it all internally. IBM has to lose the attitude that the customers are going to come crawling. News flash, they are NOT! Then they even decided a few years ago to rewrite the entire Domino/Notes software environment using the Eclipse platform. Wow. It is like they are TRYING to kill it. Those of us in the slowly dwindling world of Notes services and support would hope to expect some kind of marketing support from IBM, but if we held our breath on that pipe dream we would all be dead years ago. It sure would be nice if IBM would realize that they still have a superior product, even after slowed it down with Eclipse, and tell the business world about the advantages. A lot. And often. And starting NOW damnit!
  • Lotus 1-2-3

    Remember when/where the Lotus Brand began? Mitch Kapor paid a programmer to write a better VisiCalc in 1983.


    "Lotus 1-2-3 is a spreadsheet program from Lotus Software (now part of IBM). It was the IBM PC's first "killer application"; its huge popularity in the mid-1980s contributed significantly to the success of the IBM PC in the corporate environment."

    Before the IBM PC, the three main personal computer programs were: VisiCalc (spreadsheet) dBase II (database), and WordStar (word processor).

    Does anyone remember Lotus Symphony? (The first combination spreadsheet, word processor and database.)
  • Lotus Notes

    David, my travel with Notes is the same. Began with 2.0 (self-taught when thrown a project request from VP) and ended up at IBM as a consultant mostly doing Notes projects and am now an IBM retiree. Lotus Notes kept reentering my career life and provided me a very good living before all that offshoring. A key thing was on returning from Lotusphere (pre-IBM as IBM would not pay for their employees to attend, but instead had a summer repeat at an internal IBM-Lotus tech forum in Boston) we could never really explain to others what happened, what Notes is. No one else really "got it" and IBM provided little help with marketing and presenting a vision. When at a major bank, Lotus management responded to my suggestion to present the technology for smart suite and its advantages along side their Notes install, but they could not sell it. In the end the bank did not want the expense of retraining everyone who already knew the Microsoft desktop. Lotus (IBM) could not address that, not even a discount on training. They failed spectacularly on what could have been an easy win of a major new client. How many millions of other seats / clients did they lose due to their own marketing incompetence? Bad marketing, bad support, and even with having the best desktop and other products out there kept making the same mistakes time after time to go to new technology successfully and market it so it was known and understood (relational db native store with IBM's db2 even had several attempts and never delivered, eclipse, web desktop products, etc). With eclipse many like me could not keep up with all that massive retraining to stay relavant as developers. I retired at the right time. People mention many other technologies that rose up and died over the 70's to 90's, and I think of DEC's alpha server not yet mentioned - the best search engine no one ever heard of, was the saying....and then Google came along and did it right. A note on the IBM Lotus tech forum held for IBMers after Lotusphere - in the glory days we too had the best conference with renting out the Boston acquarium for an evening with food service stations everywhere, like the old days at Lotusphere where a Disney park would be rented out. The excitement with new product announcement and demos and speakers are such great memories, and something so frustrating because the magic would end when back home and no one else understood the products and vision.
  • And....

    And, David, I am also in the NY metro region. So few outside the area used or knew about Notes back with the birth of Notes and release 2.0. I actually met someone who started on 1.0. I so recall how those original Notes tables were so small and held so little, and the applause at Lotusphere when new features were announced about an upcoming release. People who developed with Notes were really into it.