IBM/Lotus celebrated the future of Notes by touting the benefits of the company’s emerging Java-based line of next generation Workplace collaboration tools.

“Two years ago, the big question was what is the future of Lotus software,” said Ambuj Goyal, general manager of Lotus Software, kicking off the opening of the company’s annual Lotusphere conference. Goyal said the future was bright and that he “couldn’t be more pleased.”

The companyhas posted Beta 3 of Notes/Domino 7.0 and plans to ship the final code in the third quarter. The final release will include technology that allows the Notes client to work within IBM’s Workplace Client Technology, a framework built on Eclipse and Java. Lotus previously said the Notes client plug-in would ship with Version 8.

That version, along with its predecessor 7.5, is in the works including the integration of the Notes client directly into the code-base of the Workplace Client Technology.

Lotus also unveiled enhancements to its developer tools, including a limited beta of Workplace Designer, a script-based development tool for creating application components for the Workplace platform much the same way Domino Designer is used to create Notes-based applications. The tool is a bridge between the Domino and Workplace.

“What you will see is that the skeleton that holds Notes together will fade over time,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with Meta Group. But he said it is clear users can continue to go down the road with Notes 7 and the follow-on versions IBM/Lotus has committed to develop. “It’s all about modularity.”

Also unveiled was Workplace Collaboration Services 2.5, a platform for running pre-built, reusable collaboration services including e-mail and instant messaging. The 2.5 version, expected to be released by April 1, is highlighted by a new feature called Activity Explorer, which allows users to organise e-mail, chats, and documents into a single interface and to see “activity” taking place on those objects using integrated presence capability. Lotus also introduced a hosted Web Conferencing service.

Goyal said the goal is to grow the user base of IBM/Lotus collaboration customers to 200 million, from the current 118 million users the company claims to have on Notes/Domino.

And he set to work attracting customers taking a shot at Microsoft by calling out the number of customers still on the aging Exchange 5.5 platform and the fits and starts the company has had in developing a new version beyond Exchange 2003.

“It is time to ask what is the future of Exchange,” Goyal said. He assured Microsoft customers that IBM/Lotus would give them a place to go.

Goyal said Notes/Domino and Workplace are no longer on parallel track. “Today, there is only one destination and it’s role-based Workplace.”

The opening session also was a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Notes, which included a cameo appearance by Notes inventor Ray Ozzie, who was greeted with a standing ovation, and a speech by former CEO Mike Zisman, who is now a consultant to IBM executives.

“I think the technology is only beginning to explore how we can work together,” said Ozzie, who also is the founder of Groove