Q&A: Lotus wakes up to social networking

Q&A: Lotus wakes up to social networking

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

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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.

If making IBM look cool can help us make money for our shareholders, that could be a good thing

Mike Rhodin, Lotus general manager, IBM

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...

Topic: Apps

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Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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