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You Won’t Have an iPhone moment Without a Brand

I got back from Lotusphere in an interesting frame of mind. On the one hand something kind of amazing is happening. I could tell the Web developer/designers I share an office with that IBM was going to create opportunities for them in its customers. That’s right – the banks, the retailers, the insurance companies, the government departments- all of them are likely to buy into IBM Social Business story, and associated tech stack. The skills needed to extend and integrate with the environments, or even deploy them, are Web skills: REST, HTML5, Javascript and so on: IBM is going to create economic opportunities for the folks currently camped out in Silicon Roundabout. Weird, huh.

I am not invested in the Lotus brand like, say, Stuart Mcintyre but I think it has an opportunity to own an enterprise Web Stack, to nail the consumerisation of IT, to bring new developers to the Smarter Planet party. That’s the line I took in a post before Lotusphere – Lotus Gears Up To Embrace The Web, Rebuild its Developer Story, pwn Social Business and its the line I took in a speech to Lotus and partner engineers at the event.

I told the Lotus engineers that now was the time to double down on developers, and that IBM should look at Apple for inspiration. I don’t mean the Apple of today, the crushing bruising shiny leviathan that colours our dreams white, and brings us digital content as fast as our ADD can handle it. I meant the Apple of yesterday. The “dead” Apple.

The Apple that inspired Michael Dell to say in 1997:

“What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

The Apple that might have gone under without being thrown a $150m lifeline by Microsoft.

So what does this have to do with Lotus? The first point is blindingly obvious – people have been saying Lotus is dead for years. Before he became FakeSteveJobs Daniel Lyons at Forbes would regularly write off Lotus. The meme had legs. But IBM kept pushing back. For more than decade.

IBM has been pushing the idea for years now that Software Group is a set of capabilities and brands rather than a set of products. Then last year it became apparent that IBM was beginning to decommission individual software brands in favour of IBM Software. That’s right- IBM as the brand. At first glance the move makes sense. IBM marketing is of course on a roll at the moment. IBM’s share price is at record levels. And why keep defending brands that people don’t like, anyway. Rational has its cadre of haters. Tivoli has been known to drive some customers nuts.

So lets just call it IBM, then, shall we? The problem is is that IBM is, as Alan Lepofksy says, so darned big. It is big. It feels big. its hard to navigate around. But developers don’t like stuff that’s hard to navigate. Developers want easy to navigate, with no barriers to entry. Developers don’t press buttons to call salesmen. Developers don’t register their details to download white papers. Shit – developers don’t even read white papers.

Brands help us navigate. Brands represent opinions – they represent a way of thinking, and as such are crucial – especially when you are as BIG as IBM.

How as a developer do you deal with a property like Developerworks? By technology sure, but brands also offer useful signposts. And they can humanise IBM.

I was talking to Jonathan Lister aka Jayfresh while thinking about this post and he said:

“when you think of Lotus you think of a team in a building somewhere, not 350k people in a massive corporation”

It is of course too simplistic to say all collaboration and lightweight application development is Lotus’ bailiwick. After all- Javascript and HTML are certainly part of the WebSphere development story. But I think Lotus has value. Its not dead. And it could be the best signpost to attract developers into the fold. IBM will have to invest significantly to attract and serve a new developer community. But that’s where organic growth can come from. IBM is doing great in sales and in high level marketing, and the street is buying into the strategy. But there has to be more to growth than M&A.

So what does IBM do? Create a new brand- IBM WebStack say? Does it go with a functional description – The Social Business SDK?

The problem as I see it is that developers don’t see themselves in those terms. You’re not going to hear one say: “I am a social business developer.” A social business consultant perhaps – there are, and will be, no shortage of those. But developers are going to build the new world, and IBM needs to court them in language they use.

I think Alan Cooper nails some of my thinking in a recent post about Windows and Apple

I believe that Microsoft first grabbed the developer market because they understood, respected, and cared for developers. They have lost that market because they apparently have forgotten those values and their concomitant skills.

In January 2000, Bill Gates stepped down as president of Microsoft, and Steve Ballmer took his place. Ballmer was then, and is still, a legendary salesman, a brilliant businessman, and he possesses abundant force of will. But Steve never really understood the pivotal role programmers played in the tectonic market shifts the way Bill did.

By the late 1990s, the growth of the Internet, the inevitable progression of Moore’s Law, and the commoditization of manufacturing moved the central mass of the marketplace away from the office desktop and towards the consumer and home computing.

So by the end of the oughts, a hat trick of forces has dethroned the development platform king. Ballmer’s lack of focus on developers, the easy availability of open-source Unix, and Steve Jobs’ prescient attention on the consumer, have combined to attract multitudes of programmers to a most unlikely platform.

A most unlikely platform- like uh, Lotus perhaps. One of the crucial decisions that got Apple back in the game was to adopt industry standards- namely FreeBSD and Intel. Lotus today is looking to package a new wave of “consumer” tech standards for the enterprise. The best packager in any tech wave wins, and brand helps define the package. It seems to me that now is the time to invest in the Lotus brand, and aim for a developer-driven iPhone moment. Apple is a phenomenal growth story, and they don’t really do M&A.

disclosure: IBM is a client. They paid my T&E to Lotusphere. Microsoft is also a client.

Categories: IBM.

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7 Responses

  1. One think that is not so often told is that, in the last years, the Lotus brand has been able to empower quite talented UI folks, greatly improving the user experience and making the look and feel of these more appealing.

    I think what we are seeing now, including the stack basing on simple and widely known technologies, is (partly) a result of these new influences. IBM didn’t use to be a UI-oriented company, and it seems to be changing.

  2. Interesting discussion about Lotus. But I think your post about what managers think is happening and what developers are doing is more pertinent. Why?

    Developers want to use the latest technology and not yesterdays. They always have, well good ones anyway, and they always will.

    Lotus is perceived as yesterday’s technology. I don’t hear of people ever saying, I’m working on this startup idea, “Lets use IBM Lotus.”. Do you?

    For that matter, I can’t remember ever hearing anyone recently, wanting to use IBM or Oracle software either when there is such good open source software available.

    Changing a developers opinion without the community saying stuff like its great, look what I built, and I made money through my startup, is hard work. I don’t think the IBM culture is entrepreneurial enough to achieve it. But then again I may be wrong.

  3. Nick actually got me to a LCTY event a couple of years ago, and I was mightily surprised at the level of “socialness’ that IBM/Lotus had achieved particularly with Quickr and Connections, and I’ve briefly checked out LotusLive. The big problem I see (and I certainly don’t disagree with Nick’s comments, or James’ around the developer story) is that the IBM sales machine is out of step with their own geeks (the ones we all know and love :) ) – if it’s not hardware, or it doesn’t sell in shrinkwrap with 22% maintenance charges then it doesn’t get traction. This has been an enormous source of frustration with the local IBM office over the last few years – and the frustration is because the product is there, they just don’t know how to sell to “smaller” businesses.

  4. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt if they had bid higher on SUN. There would have been a cadre of developers brought along with the acquisition; many open source types. The power of open source is less the licensing and more the ease at which community seamlessly collaborates on global, real-time basis. The question is when will enterprise customers figure out the need for heavily weighted input from their developers re: which technologies to pursue. Unfortunately for the salesman class, when this does happen, they and their sales processes tend to be disintermediated as you point out; so no incentive for them to pursue this channel.



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