Lotus clear on integration: CTO

Just why is Microsoft Outlook being integrated into Lotus Domino? Nick Shelness, Lotus's chief technology officer, says he can tell you why Lotus is doing it, but says he's 'confused as to what is driving Microsoft's interest in it'.

Computerworld Singapore's Tao Ai Lei caught up with Nick Shelness, the chief technology officer (CTO) of Lotus and a freshly minted IBM Fellow, during his recent visit to Singapore. Acting as a technical spokesperson for the company, he is also responsible for product development, and coordinates research between IBM and Lotus.

To what degree is Lotus moving away from being a proprietary system?

Notes has become in many ways a non-proprietary system. We support a whole gamut of the Internet alphabet soup, like HTML, MIME, IMAP, LDAP, SSL. We are also moving in the areas of emerging standards, such as in the security space, for public key standards. We are moving from our RSA-based solution to completely open one. We also took Notes from being a client/server to a browser/server offering. The next step is a handheld/ mobile device offering, to run Domino applications on a PalmPilot in a temporarily disconnected fashion.

I've been in this game for a long time, it seems that "open" is what you are, and "closed" is what your competitors are. Many people are using Open x.509v3 certificates, but they are doing so over proprietary protocols. I wrote an open letter to Marc Andreessen, three to four years ago when claimed that Netscape was open. I pointed out all the non-proprietary things. His view was that if Netscape was doing it, it meant that it was an Internet standard. Most of what he was doing, there were no standards for it. We are all a mix of open and proprietary.

What drove the integration of Microsoft Outlook to Domino servers?

I can tell you what drives our interest in it, but I'm confused as to what is driving Microsoft's interest in it. The move to Exchange 2000 is a pretty major migration, with the need to change the operating system it runs on, the directory, the information store. It is as big a migration as migrating cc:Mail to Lotus Notes, MS Mail to Exchange.

Therefore, a lot of customers are actually looking to replace Exchange back-ends with Domino, but don't want to retrain users on how to use the client. From our standpoint, we want to offer customers who want to do more than electronic messaging, the ability to do Outlook clients, for people who already using Outlook, there is no need to change. Microsoft explained that they are doing it, because people want to run Outlook. Sixty percent of installed messaging and groupware base is Lotus, they don't want to exclude 60% of the market.

With the example of Daimler-Chrysler, moving from Exchange to Notes, this capability is very attractive. Because the real cost is in training users, and not having to retrain users when change back-end is very attractive.

Who initiated this integration between Lotus and Microsoft?

Me. I've been battling this for a long time. They kept claiming MAPI was an open interface, and we couldn't get them to reveal all the details. Then we walked away, then they came after us. There was a whole lot of negotiation, we had a meeting in Redmond where Bill Gates was at, and we just decided to do it, around May of last year.

What do you see in the horizon for Lotus Notes in five years' time?

I really can't answer that question. It is the reality of the speed at which things are changing. We really operate on an 18-month horizon. I can say broad-brush statements, like handheld devices are important, and we are certainly positioning ourselves to be there. Collaboration will also be very important. We are broadening our definition of collaboration beyond messaging and groupware, to include unified messaging across different devices.

Will the Lotus Notes client interface go the way of the browser?

There are two forces driving organisations towards the browser -- one is a simple user interface -- but if you want to interact with an application, the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. So as we get better browsers. The other thing is that the browser is a no-touch client, with little installation, and no need to worry about versions. One of the key features of Windows 2000 on desktop is Zero Ownership Windows. It gets you around the problem about managing desktops, as they are really self-managing, against data and profiles held on software distribution servers.

If Windows 2000 really tackles the cost of ownership of clients, then I think many IT organisations will say the browser as an application hosting environment really has no manageability advantage over the client. Returning to the question, what is the appropriate environment to run this interface -- if it is a very intimate user interface experience, I don't know how to deliver in a browser, but I do know how to deliver it in a client. So I think it's a trade-off. The browser is important, but the browser as a solution to all problems, I'm somewhat dubious. We sold 8 million clients in the fourth quarter, it is pretty hard to say the Notes client is dead. With our biggest quarter and biggest year ever, there is no indication that the curve is over yet.

Do I know of Domino servers deployed for Web access only, yes. But in general, it tends to be public Web access, and very often Internet Web access for employee self-service. There's an absolute mix there, and I don't think one precludes the other. The whole part of the iNotes and Mobile Notes strategy is that the fees are the same.

The crucial discussion is about satisfying the needs of end-users, rather than what is lighter weight, and has less administrative burden, because I think that equation is about to change. Some people who live in Office, interface to Domino is Microsoft Office. For others, it may be Notes, or Outlook, or the browser. It is much more based on the individual's job function.

Has IBM's more rigid culture affected Lotus' more relaxed, creative environment?

There are examples when it has intruded. In North America, they took the decision to make all Lotus employees, IBM employees. It was done for a whole bunch of positive reasons, as it was difficult for IBM employees to move to Lotus, and vice versa, being completely separate companies.

Transferring companies meant losing seniority, different benefits. Now there is quite a flow of bodies between the two organisations, and this will happen worldwide. The only reason it is not happening in the other geographies is because of the different terms and conditions in all the different countries. For instance, it would mean transferring a Lotus U.K. employee to become an IBM EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) employee.

What about knowledge management, it has fallen out of favour with the U.S. press. Is it just hype, or does it have real business value?

It is the same problem with all these ill-defined terms. First there's the hype, then the hangover, and when real products ship, that falls well short of the hype, but delivers significant business advantage. That's what we'll see in the knowledge management area. What press was pushing a year ago, was Starship Enterprise material, that is capable of mindmelding.

The reality is much more mundane. After creating the myth of mindmelding, now the press' response is that mindmelding is a myth. It's a myth then, and it's a myth now. Products like Domino, in product-based world, are about improving knowledge and information flow. It is about people, persons, things. It is about finding experts in organisation with relevant information. It is a complex thing -- discovering expertise, and gaining trust in it is difficult, but a soluble problem.

It is like building maps that help you traverse, and about creating places where people can come together to share information. It is not Klingon mindmelder, or capturing in bits what people know, or retaining information in people's head when they leave organisations. But in terms of deliver compelling business results, absolutely yes.

Has messaging and groupware reached maturity?

We have MIME encapsulation of HTML, and can send rich text/ Web pages through mail, so that the other end can see them though not connected to the Web. In that sense, in rich text there is quite a bit of maturity, but unified messaging has a long way to go, from a market and deployment standpoint, but not from a technology standpoint. It is hindered by a lack of standards for telephony -- all the PABX, and messaging are totally proprietary.

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