Given the timing of the recent
announcement that Jeffrey Papows would resign his post as Lotus Development
Corp. president and chief executive officer on Feb. 1, it was inevitable that attendees at the annual trade show here this week would be talking about the future of the company, which is owned by IBM Corp.
Lotus officials have used the trade show as a forum to try to allay concerns.
John M. Thompson opened a briefing with press and analysts earlier this week by emphasizing how important Lotus and its products are to IBM, where Thompson is the executive vice president in charge of the software group. In that role, Thompson chose and appointed Al Zollar to replace Jeffrey Papows as president and chief executive officer of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lotus. Zollar is general manager of the IBM network computing software division.
That Thompson selected an IBM veteran with more than two decades of work experience has been the source of intense speculation that IBM intends to take control of Lotus, which it acquired five years ago. The timing of Papows' recent announcement just before Lotusphere made it inevitable that the future of Lotus would be on the minds of press and analysts, but more importantly those of users, developers and partners. So, there was no getting around the topic for Thompson.
It was put this way to him at the briefing: "There's a wave of speculation that IBM will finally get around to screwing up this acquisition."
Thompson didn't wait for the laughter to fade before he firmly responded, "I'm not going to screw this up." Zollar, he added, is the "best person for the job, inside or outside. That's why he's got the job."
Though attendees said that they want to believe that Lotus has a bright future and will keep its own identity, they also expressed worries. Many of them know nothing of Zollar apart from what they read about him in the press release announcing his appointment. The expectation was that he would speak during the opening general session on Monday, but he isn't going to speak until the closing session tomorrow.
"I think they blew an opportunity there," said Steve Power, a Notes developer at NSS Corp., an integrator based in Bedford, New Hampshire. "They should have introduced him to the business partners on Sunday and then to the world on Monday (during the general session)."
Instead, toward the end of his keynote address, Papows introduced Zollar, who stood up and waved to the thousands assembled to hear the opening keynote speech and then sat back down.
"I was pleased to see when they introduced Al at the keynote that he wasn't wearing a suit and tie," said Robert Chewey, a Notes developer at Klein Technologies Inc., a consulting firm in Vienna, Virginia.
Chewey and his wife, Christina, who also is a Notes developer, were among those interviewed who said that colleagues asked them to try to get a feel during Lotusphere for the future of the company under Zollar. The new chief already is being called by his first name, and apparently will take the helm with the reputation for being laid-back, approachable and development-minded.
The Cheweys are optimistic overall, but said they will take a wait-and-see attitude. Interestingly, they and others here admit that misgivings they have about Lotus becoming more IBM-like are based on the old IBM before current chief Lou Gerstner was brought in from the outside to whip the company back into shape.
"IBM has been around a long time, so we have this perception of IBM," she said.
The perception is one of a buttoned-down, rigid corporate culture. Lotus, on the other hand, is reputed to have a casual atmosphere where creativity rules.
The concern expressed by attendees is that the Lotus identity will be subsumed by IBM.
"IBM's historical culture is such an anchor, an albatross," said Power, whose company has been an IBM partner for 20 years. "You can't force a company the size of IBM to change overnight or even in a couple of years."
Power hopes that Zollar will create a bridge between IBM and Lotus. For instance, there are still lingering cases in which integrators and consultants working with clients to build computer systems wind up with competing bids from IBM and Lotus for products. As another example, Power said that some potential customers not as familiar with the product lines don't have a clear understanding of the functions performed by Lotus Domino and IBM Websphere.
Those product lines are being integrated. Papows announced during the keynote that the integration schedule has been stepped up because that's what customers want as they move into electronic commerce and need software like Websphere that is capable of handling a heavy transaction load. That decision might indicate that the companies will work more in tandem in ways that benefit customers, Power suggested.
Although press and analysts seized on news that Lotus will integrate Microsoft Corp. Outlook with the Domino platform and used that to question Lotus' commitment to its own client-side products, Power and other attendees believe the announcement represents just the opposite.
Some potential customers his company works with want to move to the Domino platform, but they don't want to invest in Notes. They want to stay with Outlook.
"That's important to us -- it's not one or the other," he said, giving a thumbs-up to the Lotus-Microsoft integration. "For right now, I'll keep repeating the party line. I think it (the integration) represents confidence, not concession."
What Lotus does need to do, in his opinion, is develop a clearer marketing message that explains to customers and prospective customers what the various Lotus products will do to solve problems. Using Lotus' flagship Notes groupware as an example, Power said that it's tricky to articulate the marketing message because it's "a tough technology to get your arms around." Because of that, it's not always well understood.
"A lot of people think it's just an e-mail system, and as long as there are people who believe that, the fight is going to be fought on Microsoft's terms," Power said.
Attendees interviewed at the show indicated that they aren't terribly worried the company is moving away from client software. The installed Notes base hit 56 million users last quarter, Papows announced here, and various attendees said that given that kind of use, it wouldn't make sense for Lotus to bail out on its client software and support.
On the other hand, some programmers and users applauded the news that Lotus soon will offer new Web-based software called iNotes.
"I would look forward to that," said Mark Mynsted, a senior programmer at VHA Inc., a health-care cooperative based in Irving, Texas, speaking about a possible move away from client software toward Web-based products.
Mynsted and colleague Scott Plog, also a programmer at VHA, said they are pleased overall with new products announced by Lotus here and with the direction the company is headed. Like others who agreed to be quoted, they love Notes R5. The only complaints came from people unwilling to be quoted.
Mynsted also likes it that Lotus is doing more with XML (extensible markup language), though he wishes the company would put more emphasis on Java, because that's his preferred programming language.
"We're definitely very excited about the direction Lotus is going with their products," Plog said.
Lotus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can be reached at +1-617-577-8500 or at http://www.lotus.com/.