Lotusphere Q&A: Part II, Connections, Quickr and More

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Picking up from where we left off yesterday, let’s jump right into part II of our Lotusphere Q&A. With the volume of news announced, there’s much to parse and more on the way so it would not do to get behind.

Q: With the disclaimers made yesterday, we can probably skip that. So let’s get on with it: anything you omitted from the Connections discussion?
A: Quite a bit, probably. But one important angle that was not discussed and needs to be mentioned is the web based nature of most of the application set. Connections is not entirely web based – the integration with Sametime being exhibit A of this – but big portions of it are delivered through a reasonably attactive (read: not typical IBM) Ajax style interface. Much like with Jazz, the product teams have spent quite a bit of time leveraging some of the typical Ajax libraries and so on to deliver an experience that, at least from the demos I’ve seen, is comparable to what’s available in the consumer world. I’ll have a better read on just how well they’ve done once I get my hands on the technologies, which should be within a week or two, but at a minimum it’s fairly usable.

Q: What importance do think the Ajax style interface has with respect to adoption of these technologies?
A: It’s vital. You can’t, for example, expect bookmarking (which you may have seen called Dogear) and tagging to flourish if you’re trying to deliver them via a tool other than the browser: the barrier to participation and usage is just too high. Likewise, it’s important for this offering to be available to non-Notes users, which delivery via the browser permits. Improved as the Notes client might be – and we’ll get to that – a great many users today live in their browsers, so making their tools available in the context of that client is important.

Q: What about the question of organization size and critical mass? Are those legitimate?
A: Someone brought this up during the press Q&A yesterday, essentially contending that the utility of some of the features – such as bookmarking and tagging of assets – go down when the pool of contributors is small – say less than a 100. Supporting this notion – in theory – is the network effect, observable via the increasing effectiveness of a tool such as del.icio.us the more users adopt that tool.

From where I sit, that analysis is regrettably binary in its either/or assumption. There’s no question, certainly, that the network effect does have a significant impact on social computing tools. But I do not believe that that necessarily precludes them from having value in small organizations. The IBMers trotted out the example of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation – a 10 or so person organization according to my notes – as an example of a smaller customer to whom Connections has definite relevance. And can I envision a utility for, say, tagging of assets and the activity functionality for RedMonk, a four person organization? Sure. So no, I do not buy the assertion that social computing tools such as Connections are applicable only to organizations of a certain size.

Q: Speaking of the tagging of assets, what can you tell us about the Quickr product?
A: Beyond the cutesy, Web 2.0ish name – which I’m frankly shocked got by the IBM naming and brand police – Quickr is somewhat interesting. Unlike Connections, I had not seen this product previously and thus have limited exposure to it, but essentially I’d describe it as a Sharepoint-ish like content store with some good Web 2.0 style features to it. If you can see past the too-trendy name, it’s sort of a file system layer that does all the typical content management things, while providing connectivity to rich client tools like Office, Notes and so on. While the press releases mention wiki functionality, I haven’t seen that yet and am not sure how it’s been implemented – call me skeptical on that front.

The most interesting features, from where I sit, are a.) support for the tagging of individual assets and b.) the ability to syndicate to them. In other words, much as you would with Flickr, you can tag any individual asset within Quickr, and also see who else has tagged it and what tags they used. From there, you can also subscribe to an Atom or RSS feed for the asset to track changes, updates and so on. Potentially useful, I think.

It’s also worth noting that Quickr will front-end a variety of different content repositories, so it won’t necessarily require you to decommit from an existing ECM or Sharepoint implementation.

Q: Interesting. What about the unified communication story, has there been much chatter about that?
A: Yes, that’s received quite a bit of attention, and about time too. As many of the Lotus folks can tell you, I’ve been giving them a hard time about their unified communications story for several years now, particularly since Microsoft’s had some interesting technologies in this space for quite some time. The latest iteration of Sametime, fortunately for their customers, permits not only unified voice but point to point video as well.

The video, frankly, doesn’t interest me nearly as much as does basic voice, if only because I don’t see a tremendous amount of demand for it (ask yourself why we still don’t have video phones – the answer is not technology). But there are use cases for it.

The voice functionality, however, is increasingly important. As discussed in Part I, consumer VOIP technologies such as Skype have exploded in popularity over the past few years, and there’s growing interest in related open source technologies and frameworks such as Asterisk, FreePBX, Telepathy, and so on. There’s very little question that from a demand perspective, technologies that can wrestle the voice channel to the ground and manage it electronically are going to be table stakes in the very near future.

What IBM offers is the ability to integrate the VOIP technologies into a.) your existing tools infrastructure (think Connections:Profiles and Sametime) and b.) your existing telephony infrastructure (think Avaya, Cisco, etc).

Q: You’ve mentioned Sametime more than a few times: have the IBMers made any progress convincing people that it’s more than just an IM client?
A: Some. I attended a session yesterday that was articulating how to use Sametime to integrate presence into everything from web pages to spreadsheets, and it was full. Likewise, yesterday’s demos of the unified communications functionality met with the expected oohs and aahs. But this is, at the end of the day, a self-selecting audience.

When I speak with those less familiar with Lotus about Sametime, it’s in the context of an IM client – if they’ve heard of it at all. That’s a shame, because the technology really is pretty interesting if you see it. It’d be great for IBM to have someone doing screencasts of some of the more whiz bang features, like screen sharing or the geolocation plugin.

The bigger shame, of course, is that something like Sametime isn’t available to a wider audience, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Q: What about the new Notes in general? What is there to like about Hannover?
A: There are lots of changes to the product in terms of usability and so on that I won’t cover here, but the most compelling to me is the look and feel. Yesterday’s keynote featured a quote from my colleague calling the release “pretty freaking slick” (which was, I believe, a slight editing for this more general audience), and I concur. Notes 8 client is, simply put, one of the nicer looking Eclipse RCP based clients I’ve seen to date, on par with what Microsoft is delivering in its quite attractive new Office release. The look and feel might seem superficial, but it’s a much more significant factor than you might think with end user adoption and training. Kudos to the UI design team here.

It’s also worth noting, as Simon does here with something of a backhanded compliment, that Notes 8 will support ODF fully for office productivity purposes. Maybe the IBMers will now be able to use the ODP presentations that I hand them 🙂

Q: Lastly, what about the SMB portal announcement?
A: I haven’t had the time yet to sit down with Larry Bowden to dig into the news, nor have I played with the technology itself to see how accessible it is, so I don’t have a good read on this. The pricing isn’t terrible at $2300 for 20 users, but I’m a bit skeptical as to whether small businesses would choose that route or simply go with something like Liferay. But more on that later.

Q: Ok, how about pricing, availability, all that fun stuff?
A: Pricing is mostly TBD, and as far as releases it’s mostly second and third quarter. So not tomorrow or next week, but relatively soon.