Nearly a decade ago, email was the killer app and vendors IBM/Lotus and Microsoft were locked in a battle to prove which was best at delivering messaging to a corporate world hungry for online communication.
The winner? Both. Each scored victories that have set them up today as the kingpins of computer-based communication and collaboration, said Eric Arnum, a frontline correspondent during those messaging wars with his now-defunct Electronic Mail and Messaging print publication and Messaging Onlinenewsletter, which chronicled the battle from the trenches.
"I always felt that when Lotus and Microsoft executives got up to say it was a two-horse race, that indeed was their goal -- to portray it as a two-horse race," Arnum said. "In that respect, they both won, they got what they wanted, which was rough parity."
Today, the messaging wars that dominated the mid- to late-1990s, including tabulations of which company had the most licensed users and the best implementations of the latest Internet protocols, have disappeared into a mature market where IBM/Lotus and Microsoft hold nearly 60 per cent of the users, according to The Radicati Group.
However, the fallout lives with IT administrators whose unending job now is to manage email, store it, archive it and protect it from spam and viruses.
IBM/Lotus and Microsoft have expanded the battle into full-on collaboration and real-time communications suites made up of components that include not only email but also instant messaging, voice and videoconferencing, online work rooms and access to mountains of indexed digital data.
IBM/Lotus is pushing ahead with a next-generation platform called IBM/Lotus Workplace, a Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE)-based collection of messaging and collaboration components, such as teamware and document management, which Gartner predicts is the eventual replacement for Notes/Domino.
Microsoft has slung all the collaboration advancements it failed to develop on the back of Exchange onto the mighty shoulders of its Office franchise. The Office System includes the corporate standard Outlook client, as well as SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Windows SharePoint Services 2003 for information sharing and collaboration, Live Communications Server 2005 for instant messaging and presence, and the Live Meetingonline Web conferencing service.
"The advantage we have is that no one can beat the integration we offer with Office," senior director for Exchange, Kim Akers, said. The jury is still out on this new fight.
Experts say IBM is balancing a nervous user base that thinks Notes/Domino will eventually go away even though the company is preaching an integration approach and plans to ship Version 7.0 next year and follow it up with Versions 7.5 and 8.0, which would push support for the platform into 2009.
Last month, IBM announced 17 Workplace templates that mold the technology to specific industries and Workplace Express 2.0 for small and midsize businesses.
"The point is that Workplace is an additive model," vice-president for Lotus Workplace products, Ken Bisconti, said. "We are adding a new data store option, but we are not taking away the [Domino Notes Storage Format] store. We're not taking away the traditional application framework but adding a broader Eclipse programming model."
Users say that reality is coming into focus.
"We can embrace J2EE and still have Notes applications," manager of information services for Sharp Microelectronics, Bruce Elgort, said. "But there is a whole new platform out there and IBM is building upon the success of WebSphere; why wouldn't you? How far are you going to beat Notes and Domino into the ground?"
But analysts say the Notes/Domino and Workplace plans baffle users.
"They are trying to deliver multiple (overlapping) messages," group vice-president at Gartner, Tom Austin, said.
"Message No. 1 is 'don't worry, you can stay with Notes and Domino forever' and customers don't believe that; and with good reason," he said. A controversial report issued by the Radicati Group earlier this year predicted Lotus will lose 7 per cent of the corporate messaging market in the next three years because of its confusing Workplace strategy, going from 24 per cent to 17 per cent, while Microsoft will jump from 31 per cent to 33 per cent.
"The Domino install base tends to be somewhat concerned about the notion of moving over to Workplace," Meta Group's Matt Cain, said. "It is not unusual to at least contemplate a migration to Exchange and/or look for some commodity back-end [e-mail server]."
The picture isn't much clearer for Microsoft, which still has 32 per cent of its user base on Exchange 5.5, according to Radicati. And most are running on Windows NT for which support ends this month.
"They are very exposed with the 5.5 install base," president of the Radicati Group, Sara Radicati, said.
"Microsoft has to be somewhat careful of the (vendors) on the low end of the market because messaging has become more and more commoditised," she said. "The other challenge is security, basically the spam and viruses."
Another challenge is presenting an attractive migration model for Domino shops.
"They have been lacking there," Cain said.
Microsoft's messaging road map is foggy at best. The follow-on to last year's release of Exchange 2003, which was previously called Kodiak and was to introduce a new SQL Server-based data store, is off the road map for now, according to Microsoft officials. Also gone is a security option called Exchange Edge Services that was slated to ship next year but is now in limbo. The standalone message transfer agent was designed for the edge of networks to secure the flow of e-mail to and from the Internet. It also will become a hub to plug in third-party security software and Microsoft's Intelligent Message Filter for spam.
Microsoft's lack of a product road map might be tied to a lack of understanding of end-user needs, Gartner's Austin said. "Microsoft is still at the bits and bytes level and still worried about adding new features and new architectural integrity," Austin said. "They haven't figured out how all this fits into either empowering end users, which has fallen off the radar screen for Microsoft, or how it fits into solving real business problems."
What is clear is that the rivals are locked into another battle, this one much broader with the inclusion of collaboration and real-time communication.
"It is a different battle with a different set of leverage points and a space with a lot of other competitors," said Ed Brill, a longtime Lotus employee and business unit executive for worldwide sales at IBM/Lotus. "It does have echoes of the past, but it doesn't have the same urgency, which is not to say we are not putting in a lot of effort."
Then Brill, a veteran of the battle with Microsoft, fires off another round.
"Maybe that's why Microsoft has been able to move away from Exchange as a platform for collaboration," he said.