Back to the future with Lotus Live

The news from Lotusphere in Orlando may have your head spinning even more than the plotline of Back to the Future Part II. As if from nowhere, IBM is reportedly challenging Microsoft and Google to become the dominant force in SaaS collaboration.

If you've ever had the feeling that IBM's Lotus product line seemed stuck in a timewarp, then today's LotusLive announcements (release, TechMeme) coming out of the Lotusphere conference in Orlando may have your head spinning even more than the plotline of Back to the Future Part II. As if from nowhere, IBM is suddenly challenging Microsoft and Google to become the dominant force in SaaS collaboration, writes eWeek's Clint Boulton. Where on earth did that come from?

Lotusphere 2009 logo
Like Doc Emmett taking chalk to blackboard halfway through the convoluted sequel, let me recapitulate the story so far. Twenty years ago in 1989, a visionary software developer by the name of Ray Ozzie launched a futuristic collaboration platform called Lotus Notes. It became so successful that IBM bought Lotus in 1995. But then an even better collaboration platform called the Web became universally popular, eclipsing Notes. Meanwhile, Ozzie was recruited by arch-rival and nemesis Microsoft, where in 2005 he masterminded the launch of Windows Live, a strategy to allow the company's conventional software products to co-exist with Web-based services (in short, software-plus-services). Are you with me so far?

Payback time came with today's announcement, when IBM, never shy about standing on the shoulders of others, showed how carefully it has been studying the record books of its competitors:

  • Trialed over the past year under the codename Bluehouse (itself a reference to IBM's 'Big Blue' nickname), the choice of Lotus Live echoes Microsoft's (and Ozzie's) Live naming convention.
  • In its own take on software-plus-services, IBM's web-based 'cloud' services can be seamlessly accessed from within conventional software products using what it calls 'Click to Cloud' technology.
  • It doesn't stop there. Lotus Live integrates with IP telephony operator Skype, a move reminiscent of the unified communications capabilities now built into Cisco's WebEx Connect platform (oh, especially when you consider last week's news that IBM has bought Hong Kong based online email provider OutBlaze, mirroring Cisco's acquisition last summer of PostPath). What's the link? IBM was well on the way to acquiring WebEx in early 2007 but found itself unexpectedly outbid at the last moment by Cisco.
  • There's a new integration product jointly developed with SAP called Alloy, which brings SAP data directly into Lotus Live — just like Duet, which integrates SAP data into Microsoft Office products.
  • Emphasizing openness, Lotus Live also links to professional networking platform LinkedIn and CRM provider Salesforce.com, which last year itself announced links to Google Apps, Amazon Web Services and FaceBook. Given the timing of the Bluehouse trial, I'm not sure who gets to claim first dibs on that idea [disclosure: Salesforce.com is a recent client].

The partnership with Salesforce.com is especially perplexing, considering that Lotus Notes always seems to get cited as the unmanageable, expensive legacy departmental server that cloud-based development platforms-as-a-service like Force.com were designed to replace. In the space of a week, has Notes transformed itself from legacy bogeyman into the precursor of a cloud-based future with Lotus Live? Of course, a week ago, there was no such thing (officially) as a Google reseller channel, whereas now, perhaps Salesforce.com feels that allying itself with such a strong channel player as IBM's Lotus arm might not be such a bad idea.

Anyhow, that's the story so far. As to who's the villain of the piece, all will be revealed in future releases. In the meantime, I recommend the prequel.