New Lotus?

If you were in the market for collaboration software, what would your reaction be if a major software publisher offered you an all-singing all-dancing suite of battle-hardened collaboration tools?

What if that publisher were IBM? What if it were Lotus? What if it were Microsoft? Bear in mind we’re talking about the same set of tools, same quality in each case.

You have your preferences, right? And they have nothing to do with what’s on offer. It’s about perception of the brand. And that, as has been discussed exhaustively and exhaustingly, is an issue for a brand called Lotus. It can dance, sing, strip, do cartwheels and swing from a trapeze, but nothing it does will impress those who don’t want to be impressed.

So why on earth does IBM persist in protecting the brand? Part of the answer lies in its existing base; let’s not rock the boat for the 100M plus users. Part of it lies in a touching faith that the reality of the technical specs will trump the perceptions of the marketplace. As my colleague, Dale Vile, pointed out recently, the evidence suggests this is not the case. The respondents to the survey were readers of The Register, not best known for their love of Lotus, but this is the point – they are exactly the outsiders that IBM/Lotus needs to influence if it is ever to expand its market.

Let’s forget any ideas of switching back-end servers and applications. If a company has Exchange and Outlook, or Thunderbird, or The Bat! (okay, I threw that in for good measure), then it’s unlikely to change and, if Lotus ever thinks it will then its head needs examining. But some of the new Lotus offerings don’t want you to switch anything. At best, it will run on your existing equipment and operating systems, at worst it needs a dedicated server – an appliance, in effect – and you don’t need to fret too much about what’s in it. Some of the offerings are provided as a service, so you don’t even need to worry about installing, managing and updating the back-end, although you will still need to look after the clients.

You’d have thought that IBM/Lotus would be crowing about these things that don’t depend on, let’s say, a Domino server. You’d have thought it would be making the point right up front that the product is freestanding and can be popped onto a Windows or Linux server. But, no, it takes a while for non-Lotus folk to figure out just what can standalone and what has a dependence on a bit of Lotus-specific back-end stuff.

It’s not like buying insurance, a camera or a car on the web. Some of these sites get you to ’radio-button’ or ’check box’ your desires and a shortlist appears, each showing its primary attributes. It’s a matter of minutes to drill down to the product that best suits you. The Lotus site makes you drill and drill and drill. To give it credit, at the lowest level, all the information is eventually given, but finding it requires some diligence. You’ll find no mentions of platforms on the Lotus product page unless you count the ’Collaborate in the Cloud’ link to LotusLive. Drilling required. Click on ’Collaboration Software Products’. From there you can search by product category, product name or keyword. Since you’re unlikely to know the names, then category seems best. Or you could use keywords. ’Microsoft’ pulls up just two hits, Quickr and Quickr Content Integrator (team sharing tools). Following the latter reveals that it offers both migration from and coexistence with SharePoint and Exchange public folders. Hurrah! But this is hardly platform independence. More digging needed. And then, deep in the bowels of the documentation, is a list of platforms -including Windows.

When it comes to the Lotus Connections social software tools, once again no clues are given to its platform requirements. It takes a further seven clicks to reach the information you need. Lo and behold! it can run on two flavours of Linux and three flavours of Windows Server plus, of course, IBM’s AIX.

At least with the Symphony page, it takes only one click to find out the platforms. But why is Lotus so coy about some of its products being multi-platform? A mystery, to be sure. Perhaps someone in Lotus would care to comment?

To summarise, we have a company here that wants to expand its user base into the wider world but it is, a) shy about telling us the information we need, b) makes it horribly complicated to discover, and c) hides the good stuff behind a brand that carries a lot of well-deserved baggage.

Given the company’s irrational attachment to the Lotus name, here are some suggestions: 1) Improve the website, at least for the multi-platform and cloud stuff; 2) Make sure that the multi-platform credentials are at least hinted at on the home page. (Sure, it won’t work with certain versions of operating systems, browsers, databases and so on, but this shouldn’t affect the broad messaging. All it needs is a direct link to the detail.); and, 3) think about changing the name.

In view of the foregoing, may I take a leaf out of the politicians’ book and suggest ’New Lotus’?

No, I thought not.

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.