IBM markets up-beat service under legacy brand

Lotus - what's in a name?

Comment Are you looking to change your core email, calendar, and contacts system in the near future?

Probably not. While there is a little movement in the market if you are a Microsoft Exchange site, the chances are you will remain so for a while to come, and it is the same for Lotus Notes/Domino shops and others. No one needs the disruption, cost and risk associated with switching something that's so deeply embedded in the business.

But could you be convinced to switch email software brands if an alternative vendor offered you the absolute best set of collaboration and social software add-ons to take advantage of the latest ideas in team coordination, activity management, unified communications, blogs, wikis, etc?

The answer is still probably not, and you would be forgiven for asking why you should have to switch anyway to take advantage of such things. After all, there is no inherent reason why all of the aforementioned leading/bleeding-edge functionality should be a derivative of your email environment, even though much of it is about messaging and communication. In a world of open standards, you should be able to turn to any credible vendor for solutions in this area.

In theory, therefore, when IBM brings to market a comprehensive range of unified communications and social software solutions, it makes perfect sense for it to target Microsoft Exchange/Outlook users as well as its own Notes/Domino installed base, and this is exactly what it is doing.

There is, however, a bit of challenge here, stemming from the fact that the offerings are coming out of the Lotus group in IBM. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, giving the latest generation of solutions names such as "Lotus Connections" and "Lotus Sametime" does seem a little bit like IBM is shooting itself in the foot.

The problem is that if you are a committed Microsoft Exchange shop, you are unlikely to spend more than about a nanosecond considering anything carrying the Lotus label, which conjures up notions of a big-iron corporate email environment with an old fashioned quirky interface that always seemed to be dragging behind in terms of the latest features and third-party solution support. To those in particular that may have used Notes and Domino in the deep dark past and moved on from them into the then "modern world", Lotus is very much a legacy brand that is not naturally associated with up-beat forward looking ideas.

The reality is, of course, that IBM did indeed fumble the ball with regard to much of what it did in with the Lotus portfolio in the past. While the server components have always been generally superior to Microsoft alternatives, it was everything around them that left a lot to be desired. There was then the confusing and convoluted roadmaps and messaging arising from IBM's attempts to simultaneously modernise the portfolio while trying not to spook the conservative Notes installed base by suggesting any lack of commitment to supporting their past investments.

Today, however, the vision, roadmap, and solutions coming out of the Lotus group are very clear, crisp, and potentially compelling to organisations across the board. The service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach that underpins the portfolio means offerings such as Lotus Sametime for unified communications and Lotus Connections for social computing are evolving in harmony with the Notes and Domino product lines but are not dependent on them. The upshot is that even if you are a Microsoft shop, it's worth looking at what IBM has on offer if you are exploring options for implementing some of the latest ideas in communication and collaboration.

Whichever way you cut it, though, there is no getting away from the reality that IBM will lose out on some short-term opportunity outside its existing Notes installed base purely because it has chosen to brand everything as Lotus, as many will just ignore or dismiss the offerings as not applicable to them.

From vice president level discussions, we got to the bottom of why a fairly hard-nosed business entity like IBM is undermining at least part of its short-term revenue opportunity through this kind of branding decision. The message that came across loud and clear to us is that IBM sees the Lotus brand as a huge asset and is committed to fixing some of the perception problems associated with it outside of the loyal followers. It is therefore willing to take the short-term hit on the basis that the brand will be refreshed and revitalised in the market as a whole if cutting-edge solutions in line with the latest industry trends are pushed out through it.

Of course, this only works if the products themselves really are that good, but early indications are that the significant R&D investment IBM has made in the areas we have been discussing is leading to some very interesting, and in many ways, market-leading results. And with the obligatory focus on standards that pervades most of what IBM does nowadays and the commercial need to interoperate with current IT landscapes, openness and future proofing are almost a given.

On balance, we are optimistic that IBM can pull this off. It is not going to be easy - changing ingrained perceptions never is - but the timing is good from a market evolution perspective and IBM seems to be backing up its visions and plans with some serious substance.

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