LOTUSPHERE - Is 'Next Gen' no-frills e-mail a good idea?

If it's cheap enough to deploy and easy enough to use and manage, IBM is betting that there's a market for a new no-frills e-mail product for workers who don't need all the high-end features of Lotus Notes.

Aimed specifically at factory workers, retail salespeople and other employees to whom e-mail access hasn't traditionally been extended, the new product, code-named Next Gen, at US$5 to $10 per seat, will be priced far below Lotus Notes to entice companies to bring in a new group of users for IBM and its Lotus Software Group.

At the Lotusphere 2003 conference at the Walt Disney World Resort, IT managers offered a wide range of opinions about the potential usefulness of the Next Gen product, which is in beta testing and won't be available until the second quarter.

Daria Colvett, senior manager of technology management at automaker DaimlerChrysler AG, said that about 25,000 auto assembly workers in North America don't have e-mail access through the company. This product could help close that gap, Colvett said.

In the past, the approximately $30 per-user cost of providing Lotus Notes didn't warrant providing it to factory workers, who would likely only receive a few e-mails a month from the company, she said. But by offering a lower-cost e-mail option to those workers, IBM is giving DaimlerChrysler something that could make it easier for the human resources department and other corporate offices to communicate in-house with employees, she said.

"Does Next Gen potentially play a part in enabling those people?" Colvett asked. "Yes."

The company has about 50,000 e-mail users in North America and hundreds of thousands more around the globe.

Next Gen, which is based on IBM's WebSphere and DB2 technologies, is intended to allow users to check and send e-mail through a Web-based browser or through a POP3 configuration. The product is being positioned by IBM as a lowest-cost, simplified e-mail offering under its iNotes Web Access product and its full-fledged Notes standard.

Chris Barrett, network manager at Holox Ltd. in Norcross, Ga., said that about 650 of the compressed gases company's 1,000 employees don't have e-mail access through work. Those workers include truck drivers, dock workers and counter workers, all of whom don't require the complexity and higher costs of Lotus Notes for their jobs. But, he said, a cheaper option that would allow human resources and other departments within the company to better communicate with employees could be worth the money.

"Everyone else [in the company] gets an e-mail" from human resources when information is conveyed to employees, Barrett said. "Those people get paper," which is more costly to prepare and distribute, he added. Because of the higher costs of Notes and similar products, "we exclude them from a great capability," he said. "If there was a cheaper way, we could do it. I think they would enjoy it."

Sumit Pande, solutions manager at financial services company Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., said Next Gen has potential for about 10,000 bank tellers, check-processing workers and others who have no corporate e-mail today. "We'll have to research it first and see," Pande said. "If we get a good proof of concept, then we'll do it."

Wachovia currently has some 50,000 Notes users and about 20,000 Microsoft Outlook users, he said.

Others see Next Gen as an idea that doesn't even justify its lower costs.

Bryan Owens, manager of advanced technology at Kemet Electronics Corp. in Greenville, S.C., said about only half of the company's 6,000 workers have e-mail through Lotus Notes today. The other employees have little reason for such access, he said.

"It's possible we might see a need," Owens said. But the fact that early versions of Next Gen require IBM's DB2 database application is a deterrent, he said. Kemet isn't a DB2 shop today, adding another expense to a potential deployment.

"I couldn't go in tomorrow and justify $5 a seat in the current economic climate," Owens said. "It wouldn't fly. There has to be a better reason than that."

Nigel Dawson, Notes manager at London-based cracker maker United Biscuit Holdings PLC, agreed, saying such an investment today would have little payback for his company. About 5,500 of United Biscuit's worldwide workers don't have e-mail, and the rest have Lotus Notes.

"The economics and the justification at the moment just aren't there," Dawson said. "Yeah, I'll report back on the new trends, but certainly I think there's more business return in other areas," including wireless communications.

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