IBM hinted at the future of Lotus, unveiling an ambitious plan called Project Vulcan that is aimed at a wholesale integration of collaboration tools regardless of whether they run in the cloud or on corporate networks.

Calling Vulcan a "blueprint for the future of collaboration" rather than a product, IBM/Lotus said at the opening of its annual Lotusphere conference that it plans to begin "Vulcanising" its Lotus software beginning in the second half of this year.

The effort will start with a toolkit for developers available via LotusLive Labs, a new collaboration within IBM between Lotus Software and IBM Research. 

Alistair Rennie, the new Lotus general manager, said Vulcan will focus on open programming through RESTful APIs, HTML5, Lotus Xpages technology, and widgets and mashups. Those concepts will be infused into Lotus software as it is upgraded in the coming years including LotusLive, Lotus Notes/Domino, Connections, Sametime, Quickr and WebSphere Portal.

Vulcan is aimed at capitalising on the integration of business applications and social networks and the convergence of desktop and mobile devices, according to Lotus officials. Lotus hopes to provide a system that meshes users, content creators, presence information and other data that brings context to any collaborative effort.

A key to Vulcan is social analytics software being pioneered by IBM Research such as Vivacity, which can discover shared resources created by users and provide a "return on contribution."

Another project is DUNE (Desktop Unified with Enterprise), which aggregates data from multiple applications and makes possible unified social search, personalised recommendations based on profiles and integrated collaboration views.

Analytics tools such as those and other IBM Research projects relevant to Vulcan will pass through LotusLive Labs for users to test.

Lotus's idea of redefining collaboration platforms with integration and hybrid cloud/enterprise models isn't much different from grand strategies being forged by Microsoft, Google, Cisco and others. All lack clarity, but the last time IBM/Lotus floated a concept with this much implication for its collaboration future was its failed Workplace overhaul of the Notes platform.

The thought with Vulcan is that developers will use a loosely coupled architecture to build a new generation of collaborative systems that are dynamic and lean heavily on analytics.

The plan faces a number of challenges in that Lotus intends to maintain a single layer of security, directory integration and administration across the boundaries between internal and external applications and other resources.

"Policy integration is also a big deal," said Sean Poulley, senior manager for online collaboration services at Lotus.

The foundational elements of Vulcan will begin appearing in Lotus software next year, according to Rennie. He said Vulcan will build upon what users already have and will be an evolutionary process.

"Three or four years ago, Lotus was not too hot on [software-as-a-service]," said Guy Creese, an analyst with the Burton Group. "LotusLive initially was disconnected and behind the firewall, but if they are integrating now it is about time." He said what should be important to enterprise users is how tools will apply to different sets of users, the price points and licensing, and delivery models.

"If it is about how do we make great stuff work seamlessly, that is what people want," Creese said.

During their mini-keynote address, Ed Brill, director of product management for Lotus Software, and Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president of messaging and collaboration, said the Notes entry point to Vulcan comes in 2011 after the 8.5.2 release.

Cavanaugh said in the Vulcan world that Notes/Domino may be impossible to distinguish between on-premises and in the cloud.

"First interface then functional barriers will disappear," he said. "You can see that today starting with XPages applications." He said Vulcan is also an "informed bet" on HTML 5.

"The client experience will increasingly become more unhooked from servers and the services that support it. We see that in plug-ins," Cavanaugh said.

With Vulcan the desktop will unify, but the protocols behind it are going to continue to be sophisticated, rich and diverse, he said. "A key component of Vulcan is to make end user interfaces and connections as easy to deploy as possible. We will move in a direction of seamless adoption of the capabilities and better management of all aspects of the components installed on the desktop."

He said advanced search and analytics will play a major role in Project Vulcan advancements.

It's all groundbreaking work for IBM, including the intersection with IBM Research.

Irene Greif, IBM Fellow and director of the collaborative user experience group at IBM Research, said Lotus is pioneering how research works with product teams. Greif's group produced much of the core technology shipping in Lotus Connections."With LotusLive, Lotus is endorsing the concept of putting things out that are research but could become products," she said. It is changing the way Greif's teams are thinking.

"We work so that the project can work with a product, so that we don't break things like security and performance," she said. It is that type of challenge to the status quo that Louts hopes to apply to collaboration.

"Welcome to the future," Rennie said in closing his remarks about Project Vulcan.