Lotus - where is eSuite?

While announcing a new version of eSuite WorkPlace last week, Lotus executives acknowledged the stark reality behind volume deployments of the much-hyped Java applets: there are none. Or at least none that Lotus can identify. But there should be. After all, back in February eSuite WorkPlace 1.0 started shipping on parent company IBM's Network Station Series 1000 NC.

While announcing a new version of eSuite WorkPlace last week, Lotus executives acknowledged the stark reality behind volume deployments of the much-hyped Java applets: there are none.

Or at least none that Lotus can identify.

But there should be. After all, back in February eSuite WorkPlace 1.0 started shipping on parent company IBM's Network Station Series 1000 NC.

Lotus officials insist there is nothing wrong with eSuite WorkPlace that a heightened demand for network computers (NC) won't fix. In addition, the upgrade announced last week at Lotusphere Europe 98 will boost customer acceptance of eSuite WorkPlace because it will for the first time allow eSuite JavaBeans components to run on PCs, thus "untethering" the suite from the shaky NC market, the officials claim.

Stiff upper lips aside, however, the inauspicious start for eSuite can only be seen as a setback for Lotus, which is fond of pointing out that it and IBM combined have more than 1,000 workers devoted to Java.

Designed as a less expensive, centrally managed alternative to Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite, the lightweight WorkPlace applets are downloaded from a server only when needed. They provide word processor, e-mail, calendar, spreadsheet, charting, graphics and address book capabilities, while sparing network managers installation and maintenance chores.

ESuite WorkPlace remains "on track with our expectations," insists Peter Cohen, a Lotus senior marketing manager.

"Our expectations were to attract companies to evaluate the product this year and begin deployment next year," Cohen contends. "We've got a bunch of companies that are evaluating the product, but none that I have as referencable deployment accounts."

Potential customers contacted this week by Network World had mixed reactions to what they have seen from eSuite.

Fifteen months ago, Hannaford Brothers of Portland, Maine, was anxiously anticipating a rollout of 1,200 IBM NCs, in part because they would support eSuite WorkPlace. The grocery chain was not only hoping to replace dumb terminals with the NC/eSuite combination, but 15% to 20%of its PCs as well.

Today, however, Hannaford is using "only a couple of Network Stations" and has done "not a thing" with eSuite, according to Bill Homa, Hannaford's chief information officer.

"The limitation we found was that we didn't have enough power in our Unix servers to support the NC deployment," Homa says. "We're upgrading all of our RS/6000 servers in the stores for another reason, so now we'll have plenty of power to spare."

As for eSuite WorkPlace, however, "it's kind of on the back burner," Homa says.

Another company appears to be closer to embracing the NC/eSuite combination.

"ESuite is going in the right direction, and I'm looking for great things to come from subsequent releases," says Beverly Russell, director of information services at E.D. Smith & Sons, a specialty foods company in Toronto.

As of now, four members of Russell's IS department and one other employee are accessing the eSuite WorkPlace applets from the company's AS/400 server. Her hope is to replace 100 of the company's 165 dumb terminals with NCs running eSuite over the next year-and-a-half.

While the users have experienced "annoying" download speeds and printing difficulties, Russell attributes them more to the AS/400 than to eSuite and believes the problems can be overcome in time.

One industry analyst, Tim Sloane of Aberdeen Group in Boston, believes eSuite WorkPlace will eventually find a successful niche.

"I like eSuite," Sloane says. "Unfortunately, what the makers have failed to do is to get the product operational on Windows so people could deploy it on Windows to get a feel for it."

The PC version announced last week is expected to ship within 45 days.

Widespread acceptance of Java OS for Business, which Sun began shipping last month, would also be a boon for eSuite, Sloane says. As matters stand, Lotus must release separate versions of WorkPlace for each hardware platform, a burden Java OS for Business is supposed to eliminate.

Another positive sign for eSuite, according to Lotus' Cohen, has been what the company calls an enthusiastic response to eSuite DevPack, a tool kit for developers who want to weave individual eSuite JavaBeans into their Web applications. Twenty thousand copies of DevPack have been downloaded from Lotus' Web site, Cohen says, and 30,000 developers have been trained in its use.

ESuite WorkPlace will see similar success in due time, Cohen believes.

"There is always some resistance to change, and we are talking about doing something new here," he says.

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