Column: Lotus stages Notes 4.5 comeback

A prominent business journal recently devoted several articles to praise Microsoft's quick recovery from getting caught with its Internet pants down. Personally, I think Lotus has made a more dramatic change of tack.

A prominent business journal recently devoted several articles to praise Microsoft's quick recovery from getting caught with its Internet pants down. Granted, Microsoft will probably make it (half-naked) to the top. And it's a trendy story that's easy to write (and write, and write): Windows 95 browser interface, Wintel, ActiveX, Exchange, Windows NT momentum, yada, yada, yada, Microsoft wins. Spell check. Save. Print it again, Sam.

Personally, though, I find the emerging Lotus Notes comeback far more interesting. The Internet caught Lotus as much by surprise as it did Microsoft. Lotus reacted by reshaping its long-term business vision for Notes around the Internet.

Microsoft's Internet product strategy, on the other hand, is just that -- a product strategy. It has no vision beyond the desire to bludgeon Netscape into oblivion by leveraging Windows 95 and Windows NT to make Netscape products irrelevant. And whereas Lotus must innovate to be competitive, Netscape is Microsoft's research and development department. Every time Netscape breaks new ground, Microsoft can shovel it into Windows and offer it for free.

In the eyes of many, intranets turned Notes -- a product nobody seemed to understand -- into a dead-end proprietary product nobody seemed to understand. In response, Lotus rendered the intranet versus Notes argument moot with a product called Domino. Domino gives users Web browser access to Notes. (Point to http://domino.lotus.com, register, and try Domino with your own browser.)

That's dandy, but here's what makes the Lotus turnaround so fascinating: When Lotus delivers Notes 4.5, which integrates Domino and other Web components into the server, it won't simply make Notes competitive with existing Web servers. Notes 4.5 leapfrogs Web servers. It redefines the category by opening up Notes' well-developed groupware features to the World Wide Web.

Among the most valued of those features will be the ability to develop Notes applications and access them via Web browsers. Notes also brings its coveted threaded discussions to Web browsers, something most vendors are having a terrible time simulating with Common Gateway Interface scripts.

Another advantage Notes 4.5 brings to the Web is a highly granular level of security. Notes can manage access to everything from databases to individual data fields.

Most important, though, is Notes' unique capability to offer a dynamic, structured, hierarchical view of unstructured information. This is totally lacking in today's Web servers. Notes can do this because it sees documents as a hybrid combination of database fields (such as date, author, subject, or any other custom field) and unstructured content. The ability to select from vast numbers of documents by ordered custom fields will become indispensable as Web sites grow.

It's not all roses yet. If you run Domino today, you may notice that some of Notes' features do not survive the trip to a Web browser. This is a side effect of the stateless nature of browsers. (They connect, get data, and then disconnect.) It is a problem but not one unique to Notes. Lotus needs to address it, however, and will probably do so using Java.

Take my advice

Aside from that, I can think of only a few minor course corrections for Lotus. First, Lotus shouldn't spend a lot of effort advancing replication technology. Replication will soon lose its relevance as a means to give all users access to the current version of a document.

In the past, corporate Notes servers were sprinkled across different physical locations by necessity. For example, the Chicago office doesn't have a leased-line connection to New York, so the two sites synchronise at night via a slower, temporary connection.

As more corporations use leased lines to link to the Internet and to other offices, however, it will make more sense to cluster Notes servers and keep them at one centrally managed site.

Second, Lotus needs to recognise that Notes is a terrific attic. It's where we put things we don't want to throw away, but we don't want cluttering up our house. Lotus should leverage this and build hierarchical storage management capabilities into Notes. It would be a real boon to have Notes automatically push infrequently accessed information out to cheap storage.

Finally, Lotus needs to repeatedly pledge support for CORBA and OpenDoc. CORBA is quickly becoming the standard for building vertical- market custom business objects. With Notes' business focus, it's a natural step to use the connectivity of CORBA to hotwire Notes groupware applications into core business functions.

In the end, I have to be fair and point out that Lotus didn't always recognise the value of its own product, and the synergy between Notes and the Internet was a happy accident. Lotus can be commended, though, for avoiding the proprietary path most people expected it to take with Notes. This may lead to a complete reversal in how people view Notes. Who knows? Some may even begin to understand it.

Well, I see I'm running out of space. Hang on while I refer to the latest pundit's manual for instructions on the proper way to wrap this up. Page 17, okay, here it is: Even if (fill in the blank -- I guess "Notes" goes here) does succeed, it will only be a temporary victory. Windows 95 browser interface, Wintel, ActiveX, Exchange, Windows NT momentum, yada, yada, yada, Microsoft wins.

(I'm glad we pundits don't have to work for a living. Send email to nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, or visit my forum on InfoWorld Electric at http://www.infoworld.com.)

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