Can IBM's social approach at Lotusphere jumpstart a Lotus Notes comeback?

Heading into the 19th year for Lotusphere, the odds are stacked against Lotus Notes, prompting a new approach from IBM.

Despite the tough position in which IBM finds Lotus Notes, the company will once again hold its Lotusphere conference at Walt Disney World Jan. 15-19 - this time with a more intense focus on new social business technology could have a long-term impact on IBM's future in the email and collaboration market.

Now in its 19th year, Lotusphere will once again attempt to make up the ground Lotus Notes lost as a result of shifts in strategy at IBM and changes in the market in the past few years. But with Lotus Notes facing an uphill battle, five days at "the happiest place on Earth" will have to go a long way.

The event will once again be held at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando. And from Jan. 15-19, IBM will once again showcase its best practices for Lotus Notes alongside a parade of case studies, business partners, strategists, product experts, engineers and developers.

However, the difference this year will be IBM's more intense focus on the social business aspect introduced at last year's event. IBM is going so far as to launch an all-new conference alongside Lotusphere called IBM Connect at the same location Jan. 16-17 (see related story). 

IBM's social business ventures will involve the use of tools normally reserved to social networking sites - such as instant messages, wikis, crowdsourcing and microblogs - within internal enterprise collaboration software. Many of these tools are found in IBM Connections, a collaboration suite designed to facilitate communications across an enterprise. At this year's conference, IBM will be launching an initiative to help customers and business partners integrate social tools into their current communications infrastructure.

Sandy Carter, Vice President, Social Business and Collaboration Solutions Sales and Evangelism, IBM, says IBM's next step into the social business field begins with Lotusphere.

"This year, now that the definition of a social business is set, we're focused a lot more on how you become a social business," Carter says. "This is really about helping our partners and our customers understand what the steps to becoming a social business are. How you would get started, what the things are that you want to look at, both on the business side and on the IT side, to become successful."

But even with the help of the Connect conference, some in the industry are concerned that Lotusphere '12 may be too little, too late.

A study of email behavior conducted by Australian software company CampaignMonitor, which aggregated data on the number of messages sent from specific email clients, showed that Lotus Notes lost 84.7% of its share of the number of messages analyzed in the study from 2009 to 2011. Meanwhile, cloud-based competitor Gmail grew 22.3%, gaining a substantial head start in the race toward enterprise email dominance.

The shift in opinion surrounding Lotus Notes has been felt far beyond the numbers. Lotus Notes user frustration has been well documented in the past few years, mounting to the point that page-one results for a simple Google search for "Lotus Notes" highlight an unmistakably clear domain name: ihatelotusnotes.com. Described as a website dedicated to the creator's "fellow sufferers who day in day out are forced to use Lotus Notes, causing them to struggle with email communications, squirm at the thought of planning another day and generally fighting for their will to live," it's just a sign of the many challenges IBM has been trying to overcome.

For a while, this kind of passion over Lotus Notes was also positive, according to David Hoff, who co-founded Google Apps cloud service provider Cloud Sherpas after spending more than a decade working as a consultant for businesses running Lotus Notes. After Hoff wrote a post for his company blog titled "Ten Reasons I Left Lotus Notes for Google Apps" in 2009, users swiftly and vehemently defended Notes. According to Hoff, this kind of reaction was quite common among the large base of longtime Lotus Notes users who were beginning to realize that new, cloud-centric alternatives would force them to change as well.

"There's a very loyal following within the Notes environment," Hoff says. "I was in that same boat, I was a consultant and my livelihood depended on Notes. You had a very emotional reaction that this new thing couldn't work."

Much of this is the result of a few marketing missteps in Lotus Notes, according to Hoff. In the years after it acquired Lotus, IBM had trouble deciding on a clear direction for Lotus Notes, and, due to differences in opinion among executives, lost a step in the race against its competitors.

"There was all this back-and-forth that really seemed to be executive-level strategy changes," Hoff says. "And that's when you started seeing customers in large numbers moving to Exchange. And I think that trend continued for many years in the Notes platform, and pretty much stagnated at that point."

This time around, IBM may be in good position to establish itself in a burgeoning market, according to Constellation Research Group Vice President and Principal Analyst Alan Lepofksy, who has attended Lotusphere from the perspective of an IBM employee, speaker, and now an analyst. With the social messaging initiative, for which IBM will offer its customers support and access to expert advice, Lepofsky believes the company will be more successful if the benefits of these new tools are made clear.

"They do have to focus on a couple very specific messages instead of trying to be so broad, and show not the features but the benefits that come out of it - focusing on the end result and not focusing on the tools," Lepofsky says. "As much as the business partners want the advertising and marketing around specific tools, I think it's more important to focus on the end result of what these tools can do for you."

IBM's next step will be important considering the high potential of the social business market, which Forrester Research expects to reach $6.4 billion by 2016.

Furthermore, a May 2011 survey conducted by Jive Software found that 66% of responding executives believe social applications will bring a fundamental shift in enterprise operations, while another 53% believe that they need to adopt a social business strategy or risk falling behind.

With the new approach to Lotusphere, IBM appears to believe the same.

Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, and follow him on Twitter: @ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin's email is cneagle@nww.com.

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