Users and application developers who came here to Lotusphere seeking to understand where Lotus Development Corp. is headed and how it will get there might try to see the company's strategy as similar to improvisational jazz.
The players know the basic score, but there is plenty of room to react to what everyone else is playing, said Chris Howell of the Lotus Institute.
As the company wraps up its annual user and developer conference here, developers and users expressed confidence that they can follow the company's tune.
"We're charting a course," said Mike Zisman, executive vice president for strategy. "We don't know where this stuff is going to wind up. I'm not ashamed to admit that."
The dominant themes at Lotusphere this year are knowledge management, an enhanced World Wide Web-enabled Domino and a range of software products, including a preview of the greatly anticipated Notes 5.0, and users and application developers said that they believe Lotus is stronger and surer than ever.
Users, analysts, business partners and developers expressed appreciation of the new level of candor they said they heard here. There also was agreement that Lotus executives are speaking with a unified voice and that there finally seems to be the level of needed support from IBM Corp., which acquired Lotus in June 1995.
"The big headline here is "After two and a half years, IBM finally acquires Lotus," said Tom Austin, an analyst with GartnerGroup Inc., who works in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Rather than emphasizing dramatic changes as the company did last year, Lotus this year is emphasizing changes being made in response to user and developer comments and complaints. For example, the user interface on Notes 5.0 is supposed to look only slightly more like a browser interface while the software generally will make it easier to develop and maintain Web pages and store and retrieve data.
CEO and President Jeff Papows and other executives have talked a lot about knowledge management and making it easier for users to find and store the vast amounts of information now available on the Internet.
In speeches during Monday's two general sessions, Papows said that the company's vision is to create a "connected community that shrinks the world. (With) access to ideas that expand the world."
"Collaboration is the basic DNA, if you will, of this environment of knowledge management," Papows said, adding forcefully that groupware remains important. "True knowledge management is about people and culture."
He trotted out the company's statistics from what was an impressive 1997, during which Lotus reached 20 million Notes seats. That benchmark has given Lotus confidence, Austin said.
"They're in a very strong position. Papows stood up there and said 'This is taking names and kicking ass time,' and I think he's right," Austin said.
Whatever its source, the take-charge feeling has caught on among users, developers and business partners who said that they feel much more a part of the Lotus mission than they have in the past.
"They seem to really have their eye on the ball, going in the direction of the open standard (with Domino), but also keeping all of the necessary applications," said Libby Cummins, Notes project manager at the Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix.
Cummins said she was especially pleased to hear that Domino will be more integrated with the Web. She said that her newspaper and six others in the same chain have struggled with "Notes client versus Web client." And she personally has struggled with often conflicting comments from Lotus executives.
"This is my fourth Lotusphere and this is the first time I've heard them speak with a common voice and a common goal," Cummins said, adding that she's had "warm fuzzies" at Lotusphere this year realizing that she has made the right choice for her company in choosing a Notes platform.
Although those attending Lotusphere generally seem to like what they heard, some skepticism remains. After all, the highly touted Notes 5.0 is not actually out yet and at last year's Lotusphere it seemed that it would have a radically different interface from Notes 4.6. This year, those differences were made to seem slight and were downplayed in lieu of a new ease-of-use message.
"We have a lot of new concepts for the integration of the server that will make it easy and fast -- I want to see that," said Philippe Schlier, owner of GSX Groupware Solutions in Nice, France.
Having been a Lotus business partner since Notes 2.0 was released, Schlier said, "I always prefer to see things."
Austin, who has tracked Lotus since 1994, can relate to that attitude. Lotusphere 1997 was all about Notes 5.0 and dramatic changes it would bring "and in '98 if you to want to be a cynic about it, is come back a year later and find out what's really going to be in it," he said.
Lotus executives in breakout sessions here admitted to performance problems, explained what they were and what they would do to fix them, Austin said, which left him feeling that even though Notes 5.0 "is not ready for prime time today ... it has tremendous potential."
Like others here he found that the most dramatic alteration was not in software or applications, but in attitude.
"Most of these shows have felt like revival meetings among the scared," Austin said. "It isn't like that this year."
Lotus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can be reached at +1-617-577-8500 or http://www.lotus.com/.