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Lotusphere Q&A: Part I – Connections

When you know where a given conference’s registration, press, main session and overflow rooms are before you even arrive, particularly when the venue is large and sprawling, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve got more than a passing familiarity with the history of said show. Such is the case with Lotusphere, with this year’s trip number four or five for me in a row. While I’m sure there are many that have been coming here for a decade or more, my attendance provides at least some perspective and context for the substance of the announcements made.

It’s with some confidence, then, that I can say that this is the most significant Lotusphere I’ve been to. Given that a great many of you have never been to a Lotusphere, that probably doesn’t mean a lot, but as I’ll explain this announcement may have significance even to those who have no interest whatsoever in Lotus’ offerings. And that alone makes the show interesting.

To help parse the events of the day, let’s do a Q&A.

Q: First, the disclaimers.
A: IBM is a RedMonk client, and I’ve done consulting on areas related to some of today’s announcements. Sun, mentioned below, is also a client. Further, I’ve been an advocate of some of these technologies since I first heard of their existence. At the same time, I am a fan and user of technologies that overlap with some of the announced products, including and WordPress. I think that’s about it.

Q: Ok, on to the questions. In general, how would you sum up the announcements here in Orlando? What’s the major theme or takeaway from the show?
A: Well, at the risk of using an often misused and nearly always overloaded term, innovation. On May 13th of 2005, I wrote the following:

The next 12 months will see more innovation in the collaboration space – particularly calendars – than the past few years combined. The trend is not attributable to any single project or standard, IMO, but rather to a general recognition that there are achieveable improvements in collaboration technologies that dramatically enhance productivity. Software-as-a-Service (Airset, Trumba), open source (Hula), open standards (iCal), and social software (, iCalShare) all have roles to play. But the technology to do this has been around for a while; what I’ve been seeing more recently is actual demand and interest from a user perspective. With Craigslist driving awareness of RSS, feeds, etc into the mainstream, ordinary non-technical people are beginning to look at their complex schedules and thinking, “there has to be a better way to do this.” Turns out, there might just be.

Some of that has proven true, some was wishful thinking, and the timeframe can perhaps be questioned, but the original assertion is what’s important here: enterprise collaboration, as an industry category, has seen precious little innovation over the past decade or more. Vendors are still selling messaging and calendaring tools, and customers are still buying them. Few, I think would argue, with that assertion.

At the same time, consumer collaboration tools have evolved with terrifying speed. While in Boston a couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend of mine who works in counseling and advocacy for area teens, and was not terribly surprised to hear that technologies such as IM, SMS, FaceBook and MySpace have transformed the interaction of her students virtually overnight. Likewise, it’s increasingly rare that I speak with a technology firm or developer these days that doesn’t use Skype for at least a portion of their phone calls. And so on. Consumer collaborative technologies have been better in many respects than their vastly more expensive enterprise counterparts for some time now, and have therefore made their way through the back door to become indispensable in many a business, much as cell phones once did.

Q: Agreed, but how does that relate to IBM and today’s announcements?
A: IBM, most would agree, is not a firm known for being on the bleeding edge in terms of its enterprise offerings. Not that they don’t perform cutting edge research – they don’t accumulate all of those damnable patents for nothing – but that their actual adoption of that research tends to be fairly reserved and measured.

Part of the reason for that, of course, is that enterprise appetites for bleeding edge technologies tend to be limited – the larger the enterprise, the more this is true. And of course, the larger the enterprise, the more likely they are to be an IBM customer. So this behavior is both understandabl and logical.

But not necessarily beneficial. Just because CIOs favor traditional technologies over innovative ones – a CIO at OSBC a year or two ago said that he was “not at all interested in any of the new features that Zimbra could provide” – does not mean that’s in the best interest of their enterprise. Particularly since some of the technologies are difficult to encapsulate and explain to an audience that’s never used them (think bookmarking).

With today’s announcement of Lotus Connections – née Ventura – and to a lesser extent, Quickr and Sametime, IBM’s is essentially informing enterprises of all shapes and sizes that a variety of social computing and collaboration technologies that achieved critical mass in the consumer market – e.g. blogging, social bookmarking and VOIP – are relevant to business users. Whether they recognized it or not.

Is it as significant an endorsement as its tapping of Linux? Perhaps not. But significant nonetheless.

Q: So what is Lotus Connections, or Project Ventura, as you’ve called it?
A: It’s a couple of technologies most of us know (and love) – blogs, bookmarks, and FaceBook style profiles – integrated with preexisting offerings like Sametime and Activity Explorer. In other words, it’s like a local version of that’s preintegrated with WordPress, Jabber, FaceBook and a Sharepoint-ish project/team document system. A bit difficult to explain, in other words, but quite compelling once you’ve seen it in action.

Couple of interesting footnotes: the blogging component of Connections is powered by the Roller project originally authored by Sun’s Dave Johnson and now housed within the Apache foundation. That’s right: Sun hired and continues to employ the original author, but IBM is first (as far as I’m aware) to commercialize the technology. The FaceBook like profile technology is based on an internal IBM application called bluepages; the application sees tens of millions of hits per day.

Q: What makes Connections preferable to some of the individual applications you mentioned? Why would a customer pay IBM for this functionality when they can very likely procure it for free?
A: Well, the short answer is that for some customers, it won’t be preferable. If you’re happy using, Skype and WordPress as I am (well, except for Skype), you probably aren’t going to switch, particularly since there are some significant limitations and prereq’s to the technology. But there are absolutely reasons to consider it as well.

The standard response from the IBM folks during today’s press Q&A when asked this question was: security, compliance, privacy and so on. If you’re Deutch Bank, for example – one of the Connections beta customers – you probably don’t want all of your employees bios and contact details available via the public web. Nor their bookmarks. And certainly not their project (activity, as IBM calls them) details. Connections offers you the ability to run all of the above on the same network you run everything else.

But I think the most compelling differentiator will be the integration. Consider the new employee case study. In a world where you’re using Skype, AIM, and so on – where do they find a coworkers address? Maybe on a blog page, but probably via phone call or email. And then how might they start chats with those coworkers, and tranfer files over to an activity specific location on the intranet? You can’t, is probably the answer. Not easily, would be the other. Whether it’s bookmarking, blogging, or collaboration, Connections provides fairly seamless transitions back and forth. Again, it’s not perfect for every use case, but from a corporate standpoint it should be interesting.

Q: You mentioned limitations, can you be more specific?
A: On some of them, sure. Well, while Notes is not a limitation – this will run independent of the Notes environment – apart from a sort of beta-program, IBM has no immediate plans for a Software-as-a-Service version of the offering; that’s a significant barrier to entry and adoption for most of the market. It also means that the technology is pretty much guaranteed to have no consumer footprint – a mistake, in my book. It’s also worth noting that the infrastructure is a.) Java – which could be limiting, and b.) fairly specific in its requirements. Not sure how much detail I can go into there yet – will check.

Q: What do you anticipate the enterprise appetite will be for these technologies?
A: It’s difficult to assess. On the one hand, the technologies will be fairly new to most enterprises and don’t fit within a preexisiting category, and education’s always problematic when trying to close enterprise sales. On the other, the reported response from beta customers has been very good, and the customers only have to be interested in one of the technologies to pre-sell themselves on the idea. At this point, I’m somewhat optimistic in the opportunity in front of the product. I think it’s possible, maybe even likely, that a significant number of customers that give one or more of the components a chance will shortly find themselves using the entire product.

Q: Is the product open source?
A: The short answer is no. The longer answer is that certain parts of it – such as the aforementioned Roller – are, but in general this is a closed source projet.

Q: What about the rest of the news today?
A: Having slept less than three hours last night, let’s wrap it up early and finish the rest in a sequel. Tomorrow’s piece will address any underlying Connections issues/questions, as well as the Hannover, Quickr and Websphere Portal Express announcements. Anything you want to see addressed in that, send it in.

Categories: Conferences & Shows.

  • James Snell

    If IBM itself can serve as any kind of example for the adoption of the Connections components, incremental deployment is likely to a popular approach. Each of the components evolved independently; and while there are many overlaps in each of the components user base, it is rare to find even a handful of users that use all five components. In other words, different parts of the organization have found different combinations of the components to be useful in a variety of different ways.

  • Danno

    I’m curious as to whether there’s a way within the whole platform to allow employees to push stuff to an outward facing channel. Like, say, have an official employee blog that the whole world can look at, and the employee can decide (or with manager approval, :P) whether a post should go out to the outward facing area.

    Or links, or some contact information, etc, etc.

    Because, to me, it seems that one of the intrinsic benefits of having a blog for a company is to inform clients, customers, partners, etc, of what’s happening at some micro level.

    If it’s just internal, I have to wonder what the true material benefit over other forms of shared conversation (group email, scrum, friday morning bagels) is?

  • James Snell

    Danno: Connecting an internal blogging environment to an external one is definitely possible through the use of technologies like Atom Publishing but definitely has its risks. Just getting “manager approval” is not enough.

    Regarding the value of internal blogging, the idea is really to replace some of the other types of communication that occur. Email, for instance, is quickly becoming an untenable method of managing processes. And Friday morning bagel conversations may be useful the folks who are there to grab the last bagel in the box, but for someone like myself, who works full time from home, three timezones away from the majority of my coworkers, The Bagel Conference isn’t exactly helpful. It only works, however, if folks figure out a way of working it into their regular routines.

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  • Andrei Filimonov

    How well components are integrated? From my experience integration is not the strongest part of the Roller component. E.g. it is not possible to use external content repsoitories to store blogs, LDAP integration is limited.

    Another question on Roller. What is going to happen after Connections become generally available? Roller is incubation stage now and is seeing a lot of development activity. How this activity is related to Connections upcoming release? Will future releases of Roll be included into Connections?

  • Tim Finley

    Danno: In addition to the comments James said about being remote, Connections helps you find information/resources _without_ having to know the right person to talk to. This is most evident with the Dogear (bookmarks) component which allows you quickly search/filter the great resources experts within your organization have already found. If you have not already done this type of “bookmark stalking” in, I highly recommend it. Not only are the results sometimes better than you’d get from a google search, you also are discovering valuable people at the same time. I have become a huge fan of our internal Dogear deployment and through using it I’ve discovered many very smart IBMers that do my bookmarking for me. :)

    The other thing I’d like to point out is that integration between Connection components really make the sum greater than the parts. Everywhere in Connections you see a user name you can get the user’s business card, which provides quick access to the user’s profile information as well as links to his/her blog, bookmarks, communities, and activities shared with you. Doing things like navigating profiles by the web2.0 tag to find web developers, then checking their bookmarks, and then going to the blog of a particular wed developer you find interesting is a seemless experience.

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