Lotus Development is unlikely to deliver Notes and Domino 5.0 this year as promised, after this week delaying public betas of the software until the end of September.
The setback comes at a time when customers are already grumbling about previous delays and momentum continues to build behind rival Microsoft's messaging package of Exchange and Outlook.
According to Lotus spokesman Paul Davis, the company has yet to determine whether the beta delay will also postpone final delivery of the Notes client and Domino server upgrades.
"There's obviously the potential for impact," Davis says. "I'm sure we'll have word on that within the next couple of weeks."
Public beta programs on major Lotus releases usually last about six months. Adhering to that custom in this case would push shipment into the first quarter of 1999, more than a year later than originally planned. The last releases of Notes and Domino, Versions 4.6, were released in October 1997.
The Notes 5.0 client features a brand-new browserlike look and feel, while Domino 5.0 has received an infusion of Internet capabilities and standards support.
Bruce Reed, manager of technical services at Intrinsa in Mountain View, California, is among the Lotus customers lamenting the delays.
"Those of us who are not lucky enough to get the preview beta are still sitting here wondering if Lotus can deliver on all of the 5.0 promises," Reed says. "I'm looking at '99 planning, and my patience is growing thin."
Reed says the delays give companies such as his the motivation and opportunity to look more closely at Exchange and Outlook.
"A lot of end users feel lost in the complex and quirky Notes client, but the hope is that Notes 5.0 will cure a lot of that," Reed adds. "I can't honestly tell the users yet that 5.0 will address their concerns, and I may not be able to until it actually ships."
While the broader audience waits and stews, Lotus business partners and selected customers already have beta code in their hands and have issued positive early reports.
The private beta "is currently being evaluated by thousands of business partners and hundreds of customers," Davis notes. "Posting [beta] on the Web is the next step in that process."
Mitel is among the companies waiting for that step, according to Todd Peters, a software designer for the Ottawa PBX manufacturer. Mitel needs the additional Lightweight Directory Access Protocol support coming in Notes/Domino 5.0 in order to upgrade its own Ops Manager product, which is used to manage networks of PBXs.
"We have customers asking us when our product will support Notes," Peters says. "When we can't get an answer from Lotus, it gets a little frustrating."
Ops Manager already supports Microsoft Exchange, which means an Exchange administrator can configure an employee's e-mail and telephone accounts from the same directory.
While the Lotus delays may come as no surprise to Jim Rabb, an application architect for Canadian Pacific Railway in Calgary, Alberta, they do not come without consequences.
"The joke here goes something like, 'NT 5, IE 5, Notes 5, in 2005,' " Rabb says. "If Notes 5.0 had been released as originally planned, there would have been a much better chance of its installation before 2000 than there is now of its deployment by the end of 2000."
Lotus declined to provide a product manager or executive to answer questions about what is causing the most recent delays. However, the company did indicate the issues center on the user interface of Notes 5.0, which has been a top selling point of the upgrade.
While the delays will undoubtedly generate negative press, one industry expert says Lotus will not necessarily pay a price in its battle vs. Exchange.
"It's not like we haven't seen this before from every major vendor with every major product," says Tim Sloane, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group in Boston. "I don't think it's going to make all that much of a difference."
However, next year's Year 2000 compliance crunch may well magnify any damage Lotus does sustain, according to one customer.
"Lotus will really miss the boat if they don't make that [Q4] delivery date," Mitel's Peters says. "People are going to be really skeptical about upgrading their software next year with all these Year 2000 problems. They're not going to do it in mid-'99."