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IBM and Microsoft renew Lotus tussle in the cloud

Google and Cisco stick boot in

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Lotusphere 2010 preview Microsoft bashing has always been a key function at IBM's annual Lotusphere conference which lands in Orlando, Florida, again next week. Funny how collaboration software will do that.

In years past, executives have swing out massive statistics of how many “seats" Lotus Notes and Domino has gained or held against Exchange and SharePoint. Microsoft doggedly answers the chides with fresh sets of numbers of their own.

But in recent years, the fight between IBM and Microsoft in the enterprise collaboration market had become a bit like two old bears quarreling over the washed-up carcass of a whale. There was plenty of meat to fight over and gobble down, but the market itself wasn't getting bigger.

2006 in particular was a low water mark for Lotus. IBM and Microsoft were growling over a market with only four per cent growth while highlights of that year's Lotusphere were dispelling rumors of any disruptive changes to the next release of Notes and Domino products.

Shrinking carcass

Victories that year were smaller as businesses became heavily entrenched in their choice of messaging, Lotus itself was getting less love and attention from IBM, and the division offered an interface for its software only a mother could love along with odd bits of obsolete functionality gobbed on from its endless past incarnations.

This year, however, a new carcass - as it were - has washed ashore that's made Lotus more relevant to the market than it has been in a good while: cloud computing with service provided by an outside supplier.

Major enterprise customers have proven cautiously accepting of the idea of switching from a strictly on-premise product to allowing another firm run and maintain its whole collaboration kit and caboodle. And with other giants like Google and Cisco Systems joining the productivity and collaboration feeding frenzy, we'll definitely be seeing fangs again in 2010.

That, of course, spells good news for the customer. Not only for bargaining a price, but for new functionality and features. It's also spurred IBM to make a major effort to shed the Lotus brand's legacy image in the broader market.

First, IBM has had to respond to Google. The search giant's reputation for offering “consumer-grade" applications like Gmail and Google Docs hasn't stopped it from winning business customers interested in collaboration, picking up some pretty notable contracts along the way. These include 30,000 seats with the French industrial group Valeo and 30,000 more from employees of the city of Los Angeles in California.

To answer Google's offering a subscription enterprise version of Apps, IBM launched its own web-based email system for businesses called LotusLive iNotes that pointedly undercut the price of Google's package. The announcement also teased a number of highly-publicized Gmail outages at the time by touting IBM's “proven reliability."

Then there was Cisco. The networking specialist entered the fray in November 2009 with its own web-hosted email service and social collaboration software. The company doesn't seem to be as vocal about its victories in the market, but then, the Borg generally don't give long speeches.

There may be new foes to fight, but at least one old bear is still waiting to be re-wrestled: Microsoft. At Redmond's annual worldwide sales meeting in July 2009, chief operating officer Keven Turner was handing out awards to Microsoft country units he said had “completely eradicated" Lotus Notes from their region with Microsoft software. Nothing like putting an ethnic cleansing spin on things.

IBM dug its claws in almost immediately: in September it announced US Bank, one of the largest banks in the US, will drop Microsoft's SharePoint to standardize its 58,000 employees on Lotus instead. Big Blue also set in motion its own internal program to banish Microsoft Office from its halls.

Now back to 2010. Microsoft is kicking its cloud scheming into high gear with a three-year, $250m partnership with Hewlett-Packard aimed at preparing customers for a more cloud-y future.

IBM has been leading up to this year's Lotusphere shindig with a series of jabs at the competition. It's puffed up Lotus as a replacement to SharePoint by inking a deal with Alfresco Software to integrate the open source vendor's open source enterprise content management system with Lotus. Alfresco chief technology officer John Newton told El Reg the combo made it a “real SharePoint killer" by providing a lighter-weight option to IBM's own FileNet.

Beyond the roadmap

Big Blue followed with an announcement Thursday that Panasonic has “ushered in the cloud computing era" by dropping an in-house implementation of Microsoft Exchange in favor of cloud-based LotusLive email, calendaring, and contact management for more than 300,000 workers.

This year's Lotusphere is expected to focus heavily on IBM's roadmap into the cloud and hopefully increase confidence in its commitment to Lotus. The VAR Guy, meanwhile, has sniffed out that Canonical is set to announce it will offer a “dedicated support program for Lotus Symphony" on the hip Ubuntu Linux distro in an attempt to counter Microsoft's Windows 7 push.

IBM needs to bring more to the table at Lotusphere 2010 than numbers and new buddies. Some key pieces of Lotus' cloud wares remain a cobbled together in IBM's rush to exploit the market. Notably, LotusLive iNotes still offers little integration with other LotusLive products stemming from IBM's quick acquisition of the technology with the purchase of Hong-Kong-based Outblaze in early 2009.

We should get a better of IBM's plans for Lotus in the age of online suites next week - along with a generous sprinkling of Microsoft bashing, of course. ®

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