Lotus Takes Wraps Off Java Applets

Lotus Development Corp. last week debuted a lineup of lightweight productivity applets called eSuite. The company hopes the applets will jump-start Java-based network computing and loosen Microsoft Corp.'s stranglehold on the corporate desktop.

Lotus Development Corp. last week debuted a lineup of lightweight productivity applets called eSuite. The company hopes the applets will jump-start Java-based network computing and loosen Microsoft Corp.'s stranglehold on the corporate desktop.

Formerly code-named Kona, Lotus' new offering is being backed by a who's who of network computer (NC) and Java competitors, all of which share a desire to undercut Microsoft's marketplace dominance by realizing the write-once, run-anywhere promise of Java.

Initial reviews of eSuite have been positive, particularly because it is the first productivity package of its kind and is priced at only US$49 per user. However, according to analysts and customers who attended the company's glitzy product launch here, the applets' success will depend on Lotus ironing out first-release wrinkles and its allies' ability to sell a thin-client paradigm as more than simply a dumb terminal replacement path. The eSuite product line includes:

-- eSuite WorkPlace, a navigable desktop from which users may access e-mail, a Web browser, terminal emulation capabilities and productivity applets.

-- The eSuite applet set that users can access via Java-enabled Web browsers for word processor, e-mail, calendar, spreadsheet, chart, presentation graphic and address book capabilities. These server-based JavaBeans weigh in at 550K to 800K bytes apiece.

-- eSuite DevPack, which gives developers the applets and tools needed to fashion eSuite-based applications. The tools include Lotus' Infobus technology for stringing interactive JavaBeans together within an application or on a Web page.

With the release of eSuite, Lotus faces the possibility of cutting into its own share of the $4 billion office suite marketplace, which Microsoft Office controls. But that does not faze Jeff Papows, president of Lotus. Lotus owns 26 percent of the market based on unit sales and 9 percent based on revenue.

"Microsoft has a lot more to lose than we do," Papows said. "So, if there is going to be some cannibalization, we would justas soon set the menu and geton with it."

Potential customers last week kicking the eSuite tires expressed keen interest in what the Java applets have to offer, particularly in NC environments. Nevertheless, it was apparent that Lotus still has a sales job ahead.

"It's a good start for the Java platform," said Antoine Najjar, assistant vice president for AXA Group, a French insurance company. "There are definitely some workers who will need more [functionality], but there are a lot who can be happy with this."

AXA has yet to commit to a thin-client future, he added.

One industry analyst, while bullish on the direction Lotus has taken with eSuite, offered a cautionary endorsement.

"It's got cost advantages, but you're going to have to face upto some of the weaknesses in the product," said Tom Rhinelander, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He cited "kind of slow" downloads on the PC version and "rudimentary" browsing capabilities. He also questioned an end user's ability to easily organize large volumes of files.

One Notes developer said the eSuite user interface, which relies on text-based links rather than icons, could pose training challenges for PC-savvy end users. "It will take some time for users to get accustomed to this [user interface]," said Deepti Seth, a Lotus Notes developer at Republic Services Corp., in New York.

However, the simplicity of eSuite was seen a strong point by another potential customer.

"We have a lot of non-technical users and we don't wantto give them something tooelaborate," said Lou Gallo, senior programmer at Creative Health Services, in East Setauket, New York. "One of the nice things about this is you can't screw it up."

Lotus expects the NC version of eSuite to ship in January, with a PC version to follow by the end of the first quarter. DevPack will cost $US1,495 per server.

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