IBM is juicing its collaboration tools with a dose of analytics and cloud-based integration with the belief it can redefine the technology, meet the needs of a sophisticated new user generation, and put the screws to an expanding field of competitors.
Web 2.0 tools have turned collaboration software back into a wide open game, experts say, and Lotus responded last week by unveiling Project Vulcan.
Vulcan is a concept for a platform of online and on premises capabilities, both old and new, integrated via an open framework on the back end and by analytic software on the front end. The first manifestation of Vulcan will come when IBM releases a set of developer tools into beta later this year.
The tools are a down payment on the forward looking Vulcan strategy that analysts and users say signals Lotus is a strategic asset to IBM like never before.
But the big question is whether Lotus can pull it off. Keeping its promise to drive everything with standards and open APIs, such as HTML5 and REST, and adapt to a services delivery model will be the determining factor.
In addition, research shows it will have to convince users they need IBM social collaboration tools, a group the company has not traditionally targeted. A survey last year by user experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group showed that the most successful social media initiatives "start as unsanctioned, grassroots efforts led by front-line workers."
"Everything is in play now in the collaboration space," says James Governor, principle analyst with RedMonk. "Everyone is reassessing the cost of things, the value of things, their vendor relationships. There are a new set of buyers. Email was an IT phenomenon, but collaboration in the 2.0 style is a business-led phenomenon."
Traditional rival Microsoft is headed toward a similar collaboration strategy, but with less emphasis on the open architecture, as is Google and Cisco, and new entrants such as VMware, which recently bought Zimbra from Yahoo.
Governor, who discloses that Lotus is a client to his consultancy, says that Lotus so far has learned more from the web than Microsoft and is putting that knowledge to good use. "I think IBM is more confident and better equipped than it has been in a long, long time with Lotus."
At Lotusphere last week, IBM showed its hand with Vulcan. It also unveiled coming improvements to its range of collaboration software, such as its social software suite Connections and unified communications platform Sametime. It introduced LotusLive Notes, a service IBM will host, and LotusLive Labs, a joint effort between Lotus Software and IBM Research that will allow users and IT to examine the newest tools Lotus is creating.
"I think customers are very content," says Bruce Elgort, president of Elguji Software. "What they did not see [at Lotusphere] is yet another set of versions, another set of features. They saw continuity, they saw that Vulcan is the Lotus vision for consuming services, something that is more standards-based and they saw software like Connections that is ready for the enterprise."
Connections provides perhaps the most important glue with analytic, compliance, business intelligence via Cognos integration and recommendation features that will ship with Connections Next in the second half of this year. That glue provides context for users by pulling together relevant content from any number of sources into a client interface of choice, including new mobile software for the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Nokia devices.
Early evidence of Lotus's strategy can be seen with the notifications features in Connections today, the Atlas for Connections social networking visualisation and analysis tool, XPages for developers and Notes 8.x advancements such as the Sidebar.
"Vulcan becomes the framework for integration of collaboration and business services with refinement and context delivered through social analytics," says new Lotus General Manager Alistair Rennie. "The other thing that becomes important is that the system is open. The information relevant to you will come from lots of sources so it needs to be open so people can just plug themselves in. People see opportunity for themselves in this framework."
While is all sounds good on paper, the Vulcan plan is not without some stout challenges.
"They have to have the right organisational structure to support the vision of Vulcan and given IBM's history of management that is going to be very challenging," says Harry Wong, CEO of Casahl, a Lotus business partner. "They are going to have to align the different organisations to put the vision together because they have stove pipes with their business units."
In addition, IBM has to get down to the user level where grassroots efforts are starting to push social software into the enterprise.
"One of IBM's limits has been they sell to IT and line-of-business managers," says Tom Austin, a Gartner fellow. "I have never heard an IBM customer complain that their end users are insisting that they move to IBM technology. There is no end user pull."
Austin acknowledges the new Lotus Knows advertising campaign, but is suspect of its impact.
He says over the past three years Lotus has done a good job with such things as integration, cleaner releases and lower cost of operation, but says Vulcan is the first thing visionary he has seen from IBM in a decade.
"There are risks all over the place here, but then again this is the first time I have seen them reach out beyond and try to create a new set of capabilities. What they have to do is break out of the mold and try to establish a new frontier and markets," Austin says. He won’t predict if they will succeed, "but at least they are trying."
"The concept is appealing," says long-time Notes/Domino expert Scott Wenzel, who runs the Gonzo Lotusphere website and conference session. "But it has to be complete. You have to be able to look at it as a big picture and know it does not end up being another [failed product]. But I think they can pull it off."
The next 12 to 24 months should define if Vulcan is moving toward success, can outmaneuver the competition and capture users' interest or whether it ends up at the wrong end of another blind alley.