Groupware hug: Lotus Notes turning 25

In an interview first published Dec. 2, 2004, Ray Ozzie walks us through the history

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This coming Sunday marks the passing of 25 years since the initial release of Lotus Notes, known today as IBM Notes. In marking the 15th anniversary 10 years ago, I spoke with Ray Ozzie about the earliest days of Notes and the subsequent acquisition of Lotus by IBM. Here is a slightly shortened version of that interview.  

Do you ever get tired of talking about Notes?

That's funny … I don't get tired of talking about it depending on the conversation and which way it's spinning. … I get a chance to surf off of it into my current passions and what I'm talking about now and I hope it doesn't sound like the song that nobody wants to hear. I'm passionate about computer-supported cooperative work, writ large. I hope when people are asking about Lotus Notes that that is really what they're talking about.

Take us back to the day when you trotted out Notes 1.0.

At the time Notes was launched, Dec. 7, 1989, we had one customer -- Sheldon Laube from PriceWaterhouse -- who shared our vision. He understood enough about it and he's a great communicator, much better than we were about the value of Notes at the time.

It was a very fortuitous time for Notes to be coming out because people were just using LANs for printer sharing and they could now leverage that simple technology for lightweight processes within the enterprise. By '95 or so the leading-edge companies started to try to use it outside the company, not just inside. We take this for granted now, but it was fairly interesting and it turned out to be difficult because Notes, in particular, was designed for centralized management. It was fairly burdensome from an administrative perspective for good reason: It was the way that you managed the directory, the way that you managed the security was all designed for the data center and for IT, and it was difficult to extend that to an environment of multiple IT organizations.

When did you know you had something big with Notes?

I'll say something that let's you see a little bit about my personality: I knew we had something before we started the company. The two guys who started Iris (Associates) with me -- Tim Halvorsen and Len Kawell -- the three of us had been at the University of Illinois in the mid-'70s and had been exposed to a system called Plato, where we first lived the online community experience. We knew what it was like to work with other people at a distance online because we lived it for years.

We lost that when we went into industry. When we graduated from school, they went to DEC and I went to Data General and suddenly we were thrown into this way-back machine of working the old-fashioned way. We had an innate desire to bring back that method of virtual online work that we had experienced before.

In 1989, because of (Lotus founder) Mitch Kapor and a number of other people who believed in us, we finally had the opportunity to start a company and build that vision.

When we came out with the product in '89, we knew what you could do with it and we couldn't understand why we couldn't communicate to others the difference that they could make.

What piece was missing at that point?

People think always in terms of their business problem, their business process, their business pain. You always have to surf off of what you know, and if you are an accountant, you're wrapped up in the accounting procedures that you've dealt with for many years. You might be able to take on incremental things, like a fax machine or a spreadsheet that emulates what you were doing and takes it one notch further, but the concept of going from physical work to virtual work, the concept of processes that cross-cut group boundaries, it required too many things to change.

What really ended up doing it for Notes was nothing that Lotus did, it was the fact that there's a VAR community, a reseller community, which understood their own customers. They understood the context within which collaborative processes would occur. They built solutions on the platform that we built, and then the customers could understand it.

Looking back, were there any aspects of Notes that you had spot-on from the beginning -- or missed?

Absolutely. I'll start with what we missed. We missed -- but I missed clearly -- the immense value in simple publishing. Notes was and is an amazing interactive system around messages and forms and documents and things like that, and in order to use it you have to authenticate yourself to the system so that there's some security and you build these apps and it works really well.

We had a number of people at the time -- early customers like Reuters, who were just trying to get their information out to their customers. They were trying to just publish it to lots of users in an organization.

When I first saw the Web -- Mosaic -- I am ashamed to admit that I said to myself, this is so trivial, it's got no security, you can't authenticate, the server doesn't know who the user is -- so all you can do with this is simple publishing. I should have foreseen earlier on in Notes the value of a simpler, anonymous client/reader that could have been used for a much broader set of applications than it was initially.

One of the things we got right… is the respect for off-line use and mobility. You have to know from day one when you're building a system that you want to treat mobility as a first-class problem. Early on in Notes (we embraced) the concept of putting all of the code that would be on the server on the client so that you could do this replication. Obviously we did that again in Groove Networks, in a different, much more sophisticated way, but it's the same basic idea that you want to empower the user to work whenever, wherever they need to work. I think we got that so right and it amazes me to this day that more people haven't gotten it right.

Why do you think that is?

It's hard. It's hard and you can't add it on, particularly the integration between the storage, communications and security. They all have to be wrapped together from day one in order to get that seamless use between what you do on the client and what you do when you're connected.

Are there milestones through the early years of Notes that you thought particularly important to the development path?

The first big milestone -- and this is not specific to Notes but rather any major commercial end-user software product -- version 3.0 tends to be the first version that hits its mark because it's got a certain level of maturity, a certain level of user feedback plowed back into the product.

The next major milestone -- and this is not widely written about but I think customers understand it -- is there was a thing called "The Nifty 50." It was a set of application templates that were starter apps, so to speak, that were built on top of Notes 3. It bridged a lot of people into understanding and they just started to build more things.

In release 4.5 email and calendaring became world-class. It was concurrent with the release of (Microsoft) Exchange and it suddenly set in motion thousands of companies putting out RFPs for email systems and then picking one, either Exchange or Notes.

The last major event is in '95 when IBM bought Lotus. People don't realize this, but we had shipped about 2.2 million seats of Notes before IBM, and IBM rapidly jacked that up to 100 million-plus. They did so many things right at the start. There was a lot of turmoil because of the Lotus management structure, but they said, 'Do you know what you're doing? If so, we will put resources into it.' They put resources into it and stepped back and let us enable their organization by putting Notes throughout IBM.

What was your reaction when it was first made clear to you that IBM was going to buy Lotus?

(IBM CEO Louis) Gerstner looked me in the eye one-one-one and said, 'Ray, we're not going to spend $3 billion on Notes, $3.5 billion on Lotus, to screw it up, so stick around and we'll let you make it what you wanted it to be.' I was willing to give them a chance because it was extremely genuine. No, I didn't like the fact that Lotus was losing its independence, but so many people had put so much love into that product for so long that we wanted to give it a chance. And they did what they said they were going to do.

So you were relatively happy with how things went in the subsequent two years before you left?

Sure, absolutely. In any environment, particularly in a big-company environment, there are frustrations, but it's surely in the noise, it's nothing to dwell on. The bottom line is that they invested in Notes and brought it to a much broader base than ever could have been exposed to it, and they used it as the basis for building a big services organization within their own company.

I read the "history of Notes" on the IBM site and couldn't help but notice that you were not quoted in it. Is there anything to be read into that?

I don't think so. The history of Notes that is up there is largely accurate, and it's in any company's best interests to focus on the more recent stuff, and I didn't have any involvement in the more recent stuff. We've had a great relationship and I left on very good terms.

What's your sense as to whether Notes will continue on as an independent product?

IBM has a history of never forcing its customers through tremendous changes; there are S/360s out there that are still cranking along, and I'm sure you'd find a few PROFS systems that are still out there. So I don't see that they would do something so reckless as to stop something. I just don't think that's in the cards.

What's very clear is that Notes has transitioned into a cash cow; it's not at the leading edge of their initiatives. Workplace is at the leading edge, and they would like to, for very pragmatic business reasons, sell more DB2 and sell more Websphere and the things that they regard as more contemporary technologies than Notes. So I think you'll see a lot of marketecture that unifies two architectures, and you'll see active selling efforts on the newer stuff. The older stuff will gracefully stabilize.

You've been doing this kind of work a long time. It still gets you excited?

Yes, sir. I thrive on two things: interesting technology challenges and interesting business challenges.

I'll just pick one thing (to illustrate): Look what's going on in the government post-9/11. The 9/11 Commission, the president's directives, have all said 'you must learn to do joint operations more effectively; you must learn to share information more effectively for some very important reasons.' That gives me a lot of opportunities to help customers understand what they can use technologies for to solve some really important problems, and that's fascinating to me.

From a technology perspective, I couldn't get more excited by what's gone on in the Internet. Groove is a product that lives at the edge of a network; it's a PC-based network, it's based on peer technologies and if you look at all of the exciting trends that are happening in technology, it's all happening at the edge. There are a lot of things that can be done that are intriguing from a technology perspective involving mobile devices, involving wireless, that haven't been done before … and it frankly turns me on.

(Note: Ozzi’se latest venture, Talko, released its debut product – “an app that's designed to unlock the potential of voice” – back in September.)

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