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IBM out of the online services gate with mixed reviews

Challenges are many as IBM/Lotus lines up against Microsoft, Cisco and Google

By , Network World
January 23, 2009 10:14 AM ET

Network World - Seeking to break out from behind the firewall, IBM/Lotus is cloning its collaboration family for the cloud and embarking on a direction that could define the future of its applications.

The company last week changed the name of its year-old Bluehouse cloud services project to LotusLive and signaled that it is officially in the software-as-a-service race.

The company, however, could only sketch out a rough outline that was full of technological gaps, vague on delivery dates and empty on pricing.

LotusLive includes hosted services such as messaging, conferencing and social networking cast in the likeness of Lotus's on-premises tools. Also planned are plug-ins to connect the online and on-premises software.

IBM/Lotus faces a number of challenges including integrating newly purchased online messaging technology from Hong Kong-based provider Outblaze, tying together the online suite with on-premise software, and wooing small- and midsized businesses (SMB) historically absent from IBM's radar.

In addition, IBM/Lotus must establish a reseller channel against giant online collaboration competitors such as Microsoft, Cisco and Google in order to prosper.

In its first appearance at the company's annual Lotusphere conference, LotusLive drew rough critiques from some analysts and potential end-users along with a smattering of kudos from pundits and early adopters.

Despite the differences of opinion, all agree IBM/Lotus has work to do and has about 12 to 18 months to define the platform, whip it into shape and prove LotusLive can sell.

"Since IBM started talking about Bluehouse my thought was if they do it really well, it could be really, really good," said Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst of consulting firm Basex. "It's out of beta because they are selling it, but it looks to me like all the pieces are not put together yet."

The pieces that are together and available are LotusLive Notes (based on Hosted Notes), Meetings and Events, which are based on Sametime.

Last week, IBM/Lotus unveiled a beta of LotusLive Engage, a bundle of services that includes Web mail, instant messaging, Web conferencing, file sharing, charts and forms. IBM/Lotus promised other bundles targeted at specific industries and needs, or ala carte delivery of services. IBM/Lotus officials would only say the pieces would be released throughout 2009.

To start, however, many analysts panned Engage as ill-defined, immature and reactionary.

"It is a work in progress," said Kathleen Reidy, senior analyst with The 451 Group.

"Last year, Bluehouse was about SMB, but this year it is how you extend internal investments to the external cloud. So is it SMB or an extension for enterprise customers to do extranets? Can you do both at once with this new service? Those are two different markets."

Another big question was around LotusLive iNotes, a lightweight messaging service that will be based on Outblaze Web mail technology and not Notes/Domino.

IBM/Lotus acquired the technology on Jan. 15 and inserted it into the LotusLive lineup just a few days before its unveiling. Left out was the company's own Notes-based Web e-mail technology.

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