IBM gearing up to tie together collaboration pieces

New development tools planned for users and to ease Web app development

IBM next week will spend less time at its annual Lotusphere conference introducing new products and more time upgrading and aligning the pieces of its current software portfolio with real-time communications, collaboration, social networking and composite applications.

The company's annual Lotusphere show in Orlando (January 21-24), which has been attracting more and more attendees over the past few years after several smaller editions, will focus on educating users on 2007's glut of new products.

The intent is to show users how Notes/Domino, especially the 8.0 version released in August, and Sametime 8.0 (shipped in December) integrate with software and Web 2.0 tools IBM pumped out in 2007 including, Lotus Quickr (file sharing/team spaces), Lotus Connections (social networking) and Lotus Symphony (text editor/spreadsheet/graphics).

In addition, IBM plans to upgrade and plug holes in its development tools lineup, including introduction of a version of Lotus Designer based on Eclipse, and new tools to ease Web application development and a series of simple tools based on platforms such as portal to aid users in stitching together pre-built software components.

And IBM plans to introduce APIs that will let developers more easily integrate Lotus Symphony productivity applications into the rest of the Lotus software portfolio much the same way Microsoft has tied Office to its communications and collaboration platform.

Experts say IBM's challenge will be not only to educate and entice Notes users but also to clarify its strategy in order to win over users beyond its traditional Notes user base now pegged at 135 million.

"I think IBM's direction is correct," says Karen Hobert, an analyst with the Burton Group. "They are looking at opening up the development tools and opening up things for cross-platform compatibility, and giving easy-to-use tools to end users to create ad hoc applications. But my problem with all this is how it is being articulated. It is still confusing."

Hobert says IBM will have to clarify the message because it does not have time to stumble like in the past.

"People who do not understand Notes are strictly looking at it from the position of 'I need collaboration software' and saying let's look at IBM," she said. "Those people are also looking at other vendors, and it is harder for them to see IBM's big picture. The Notes people get it, but I think everything that IBM is doing is still an install-base play."

Reaching beyond the installed base is more critical now because IBM is not only lined up against traditional rival Microsoft, but also against Cisco, Google, Oracle, Sun and others in the broad area of unified communications.

Hobert's assessment that the clock is ticking for all these vendors is evidenced by a recent Network World survey conducted among 245 members of its Technology Opinion Panel that showed 85 per cent view collaboration technologies as "important" or "somewhat important" to their future productivity goals.

So while IBM focused on the user interface in 2007 built around its common Lotus Expeditor and Eclipse frameworks, 2008 is about tying everything together on the back end.

In fact, the Lotusphere track titled "Planning and Managing Your Collaboration Infrastructure" holds far more sessions than any other track at the conference and includes sessions on how to roll out, integrate and exploit new software and platform upgrades.

While Notes users have been patient and faithful over many IBM product undulations, including the most recently failed Workplace strategy, IBM wants to create the same feeling with the world outside Notes. One subtle change to help the non-Notes users grasp the message is that IBM is dropping its "composite application" term in favor of the popular Web 2.0 terms "mashup" and "widgets."

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