Q&A: Lotus wakes up to social networking

Lotus general manager Mike Rhodin has overseen the addition of online collaboration functionality to the groupware tools

With attention focused on all things Web 2.0, it's fair to say groupware isn't grabbing much attention anymore. However, it seems IBM's Lotus division has finally wised up to the new tech landscape, and at Lotusphere 2007, this year's annual customer event, it unveiled a raft of products that embrace emerging online social-networking technologies.

IBM's Mike Rhodin, general manager of the Lotus group, is the man charged with reinvigorating IBM's groupware strategy. After five years of relatively quiet activity, Lotus seems to have woken up to the possibilities of online collaboration. And that new strategy will bring it into conflict with old enemy Microsoft.

With echoes of the Notes versus Exchange competition of old, Lotus is now squaring up against Microsoft's Sharepoint collaboration tool with its Lotus Connections social-networking software.

ZDNet UK sat down with Rhodin to discuss putting the zip back into Lotus, and the continuing feud with Redmond.

Q: If you gave one reason why users should update to Lotus 8, what would it be?
A: Well, there are a couple of reasons but to take just one, that would be the enhanced user experience. That's what we are hearing from all the customers who have seen it so far and that was the design point. We had spent the previous three releases working on security, scalability, cross-platform, all of the server stuff. We dedicated this release to the end user.

From an investment viewpoint, we shifted the majority of the investment to working on the end-user experience. We believe we are creating the most productive end-user experience on the market with this release and I am benchmarking ourselves against everybody, in making that statement.

What are the fundamental changes?
The most fundamental change is the look and feel. We've simplified the UI (user interface), we've taken redundant information off the screen. And simple things, like aggregate all the preferences into one place. We've added simple things like allowing you to have your own personal mode of work; whether you want to work with a vertical-structured inbox or a horizontal structure, it's simply just pressing on an icon to change it.

Do you see that the announcements on Monday and products such as Connections are a challenge to Microsoft?
We've competed back and forth for some years now. I think what I announced was a broadening of the conflict.

Do you think you focus too much on Microsoft?
I am not focused on Microsoft. But what you find about a product like Quickr, for example, is that it is a logical competitor to Sharepoint. But it goes beyond what Sharepoint can do, and it is much more Web 2.0-based than Sharepoint will ever be. It is built to compete in that space. But, you know, competition is good for the market.

Here at Lotusphere you have made a series of announcements on products such as Connections that could be described as "cool". Is that the Lotus strategy now, to make IBM products look cool?
Simply put, my job is to build approachable software that people want to use. When you are making software that people want to use, "cool" is one of the feelings that people want to think about. I think that sitting down and playing with Connections, people get it immediately, they think it's cool, they like it, it plugs in, but it doesn't intimidate business users either so it crosses that kind of boundary between cool consumer stuff and true, business-class software, and it builds...

...that bridge between the two in a way that I think is going to be very approachable. And if we make IBM look cool along the way, that's not our business, our business is making money, so if cool can help us make money for our shareholders that could be a good thing.

Any signs of that?
I think the announcements we made were pretty cool.

So are you happy with reactions to the products?
Based on the reactions so far, I think we hit a home run. The social software stuff, I think, touched a nerve. Based on customer reaction over the last four months as we have been showing people stuff, well, that was phenomenal.

Talking to somebody at Bowstreet [a company acquired by IBM in December 2005 that makes software for speeding the development of portlets], he said the acquisition was crucial, how true was that?
The Bowstreet work is actually critical to a lot of the solutions built around portal. The dashboard framework and a lot of the cool UI stuff that was done, about dragging dashboard components into the applications, was all done through the Bowstreet capability. We bought Bowstreet for two main reasons. They had a terrific wealth of expertise in how to connect into different back-end systems. They have builders for connecting into your SAP, Peoplesoft, etc, and just quickly bring your information forward into the UI and at the same time, a really nice rapid application development capability. The combination of those two facilities has really accelerated our portal business this year.

Five years ago, Notes did not seem to have a direction; what has changed?
If you go back five years, by then most people had made their email decision, Notes or Exchange, so a lot of the focus in Lotus was experimenting in new spaces. If you look over the last few years a couple of things had happened.

One, we are re-focusing in on the core business, making sure we have the core email applications, after we've delivered what we think is a great return on investment story around the server and the capabilities on that side.

And we have been harvesting some of the experimentation that went on. What you have seen here [at Lotusphere this week] is the culmination of four years' work, to really harvest new technologies, experiment with different ways of doing things and then bring them into a much-simplified product portfolio.

I now have everything built down into five core services around messaging and calendaring with Domino, sharing information with Quickr, real-time communications with Sametime, social-networking platform with Connections and portal. We have built the technology so they are not overlapping, but synergistic.

You have so many products on show today, but no talk about identity management, access management and so on. Why is this?
Those are underlying services that we use in our collaboration products. We are building our products to plug into industry standard products for that, such as Integrity. We are being very careful in our software portfolio not to step on each other's toes, so we created boundaries across the different divisions to create a non-overlapping, complete picture for others. So where Tivoli is focusing on identity, security and storage, network management topics, we are focusing more on the end-user aspects. The end-user and collaboration services. WebSphere focuses on integration. Rational focuses on governance and application development.

My point is that we are really trying to focus from the outside in, to see what users need. At the end of the day, users don't care whose identity product you are using, they just want to know that they are talking to the right person. So our focus on the collaboration portfolios is to come at it from the outside in and on the value that they can derive from our systems.

Do you have any plans for a consumer product like Outlook Express, a product that is responsible for a lot of Microsoft's growth in consumer communications?
First of all, we are not a consumer company. Check the name, IBM is International Business Machines. And I challenge people on the assumption that a lot of growth comes from Outlook Express. I think if you look at what people are using at home, I don't think they are using Outlook Express any more. I think they are using Google Mail, Yahoo. I think they are using a lot of the "born on the web" -based email services. The phenomenon of the Outlook client at home is starting to dissipate.

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