A few years ago, when the word "intranet" first entered the IT lexicon, the future of Lotus Notes as a platform for distributed applications looked dim.
Corporate IT managers, fed up with Notes' high cost, its proprietary structure, and the lack of a competitive alternative to Microsoft were attracted to the idea that Internet software startup Netscape Communications could provide the primary groupware functions in a cheap, standards-based manner.
Now we're waiting for Lotus Domino 5.0 server and Notes 5.0 client, products that analysts say demonstrate that Notes' trip to the Web is largely complete. But although it's acknowledged that Notes is the most sophisticated groupware product, some critics say that addressing the deficiencies in Notes has taken a back seat to converting Notes to the Web.
The difficulty, observers say, is Lotus' need to support open protocols while preserving the crown jewels of Notes, namely its proprietary features of replication, directory, and database file format.
Three years ago, these home-grown technologies appeared to be Lotus' worst enemy and intranets could well lay waste to Notes -- and possibly Lotus. But the company under new parent IBM moved quickly. It slapped a Web gateway onto Notes, replumbed the server with Internet protocols (renaming it Domino), and embraced the term "intranet". By mid-year, Notes will be a product transformed.
"They have done an excellent job -- given where Notes was -- of changing the architecture and adding capabilities to Domino to steer it towards the Web," says Tim Sloane, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group. "I would guess it's about 50 per cent of the way there."
The downside is that the weaknesses that existed in Notes before it was opened to Internet standards still remain.
"I have the same criticism today that I had three years ago," says Mark Levitt, an intranet analyst at IDC. "Despite Lotus' efforts, it is still a high-end solution in terms of prices, administration, and performance requirements."
Some users concur that Notes hasn't been able to match intranet technology's reputation for ease of use, low cost, and ubiquity.
"Nine times out of 10, when we start an intranet and they already have Notes, the CEO says, ÔWe have Notes and 2000 databases and no one's using them'. That usually indicates that they've never stepped back and actually looked for a strategy for information management," says David Leveen, a developer of Web sites and intranets. "Notes makes it easy to do groupware at the local level, but it's difficult to share that with the rest of the organisation."
The ongoing challenge for Lotus is the need to straddle the fence by keeping the installed base happy with proprietary features while trying to embrace the brave world of the Internet that allows new, better ways to distribute information.
"The Achilles heel for Lotus is its installed base using the proprietary LotusScript and proprietary architecture," says Dave Malcolm, product manager for Microsoft Exchange in the US. "The architecture is going to have to change to get onto the Web path. It is going to be difficult to make it a seamless transition."
The industry has seen demonstrations of a slew of new products which attempt to satisfy Lotus' somewhat divergent interests. The next version of the Notes client, code-named Maui, will sport a new does-it-all client interface that acts like a browser, brings Java and complex object translation to its higher-scaling servers across most leading platforms, and further opens its development tools to industry standards.
Domino 5.0, which the company positions as a server to Web browsers or Notes clients, will also include new tools for developing thin-client intranet applications using Lotus' eSuite Java-based productivity applets as components.
These new enhancements, Lotus' competitors say, do not yet form a knockout punch in the ongoing battle to woo the enterprise with the Web. Netscape, for one, pooh-poohed Lotus' new Notes 5.0 client, which aims to fill multiple roles as a Web browser, messaging client, and personal information manager.
"I don't see a unified client coming too soon. Lots of things need to be addressed, especially for disconnected users. It will not be for the sophisticated user," says Albert Gouyet, director of product marketing for messaging at Netscape, whose Communicator client offers browsing, mail, and calendaring functions. "It's a good idea, though."
"If you want to go to the Web, go to the Web," says Joel Rothstein, Netscape's competitive analyst. "When you go through proprietary gateways, everything is slower."
However Netscape has not been overtaking Lotus with its brand of browser client. Notes seats continued to grow in the fourth quarter of 1997 by four million seats to 21 million, and Netscape saw its client momentum slow considerably. Microsoft's Exchange has 10 million seats.
Although the Notes client may be morphing in search of its new role, Lotus' Domino Server is also being met with some trepidation in its new role as a Web server.
"Lotus has Web server capabilities, but their focus has been on the groupware environment, and they may not be viewed as capable in the Web server area," says Ian Campbell, an analyst at IDC.
This lack of a Web identity might not be all bad. Many large corporations -- Lotus' core audience thanks to many IBM sales forces now hawking Lotus wares -- are keeping their Web efforts as a sideline. Marketing Domino as purely a Web server may be confusing.
Ironically, some observers believe that Lotus' rush to the Web has been too fast. Its Instant Teamroom collaboration software, for example, meant to give ISPs a means of providing "rentable" groupware applications, is ahead of the market, IDC's Campbell said.
Lotus has had to communicate Notes' transformation to the crucial third-party and corporate developer community, which can make or break a platform. One of Notes' strengths has been the huge numbers of developers making a healthy living off of the Notes installed base. Observers wonder if Lotus' move to the Web will alienate them.
"I have seen areas where Lotus was slow to react to missed opportunities," says Daren Nelson, CEO of GWI Software, in Vancouver, maker of Help! for the Web Domino, Version 2.0, a Web-based customer support and help-desk application. "This has not been the case. My business is dependent on them and my company is growing at 100 per cent per year."
Such developers, however, will be hearing Microsoft's siren song of Windows NT, not only on the Web server front but also in the messaging and groupware space. Microsoft plans to provide compelling intranet tools and server platforms to more simply build and manage distributed applications.
And with a number of free products and integrated bundles with NT Server, the price could be an offer too good to refuse.
So as round two of the World Wide Web wars gears up, Lotus remains in a sticky position. It needs to accurately predict the future while attending to those core customers that will not move too quickly. So far the record speaks for itself; Notes is now far and away the number one messaging platform in the world among large business users, and it continues to grow.