ORLANDO - Lotus started to regain momentum last week by throwing down the gauntlet to chief rival Microsoft and wooing end users with forthcoming products that promise to extend Domino's life and integrate the technology into a future collaboration platform.Lotus surprised many of the more than 5,000 attendees at Lotusphere with just how far along it is in developing products that begin to integrate Domino and WebSphere, but also with its near-term commitment to the pure Domino platform.With its product road map, Lotus also showed it is beginning to pull together its long-term strategy around collaboration with the sort of tools and software that Microsoft still is fumbling to develop and ship.Over the next 18 to 22 months, Lotus plans to ship two versions of Domino and a pair ofcollaborative components and development tools that integrate Domino with WebSphere and DB2."Code talks," said new Lotus general manager Ambuj Goyal, whom IBM software chief Steve Mills sent to craft Domino into a set of collaborative components for IBM's On-Demand computing. Goyal, who built IBM's back-end WebSphere Business Integration business, says he plans to build front-end services using Domino. "The more code we ship the more people will believe that we are doing this," he says.The strength of the Lotus stand at Lotusphere highlighted IBM's commitment to evolve its Next-Generation Domino platform and Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition development environment."The evolution of Domino is happening more rapidly than I thought," said Andrew Krause, a collaboration specialist with a federal government agency. "But they also have a strong interest in not alienating Domino customers."Sources say Lotus plans 15- to 18-month release cycles that will include a maintenance update and a version that introduces new features.But Krause said the reality of two Domino versions, the traditional monolithic model and the set of components that run on WebSphere, means choices eventually will have to be made. "We are a WebSphere customer also, and we are already trying to rationalize two [collaboration] environments. Management will always ask us why we have both."Just a year removed from the conceptual models presented at Lotusphere 2002, where the company showed up without having shipped a major product for three years, Lotus demonstrated products and tools that will become the foundation for Next-Generation Domino. The Next-Generation platform is a set of collaborative components such as mail and calendaring that can be embedded in applications and run on WebSphere."IBM has executed well over the past 12 months," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Meta Group, on the high-stakes Domino-to-WebSphere transition. "The question is, how many of the 60 million Domino users will drop out?"While that answer will play out over many years, Cain says Lotus last week reaffirmed that Microsoft's collaboration strategy remains disjointed as the two rivals work to create sets of collaborative components and jostle for supremacy in the Web services world."I'm interested in the openness of the platform IBM is building," says Frank Hughes, a Notes administrator for a large power company. "I can leverage my existing [Domino] infrastructure into Next Generation. I don't want to get into Microsoft. I don't think they have a coherent collaboration strategy."Lotus is trying to emphasize that point.The company says it will deliver in the first half of this year the initial collaboration component called Next Gen Mail, an e-mail-only server that runs on WebSphere.IBM says it hopes Next Gen Mail will help users familiarize themselves with components and the value of the component architecture, where Next Gen Mail can be embedded in applications such as workflow to provide a mail-routing function.The component, which can deliver mail to low-end users, also might make IBM\/Lotus enticing to Microsoft Exchange 5.5 customers who might not want to upgrade to Exchange 2000 and Active Directory. Those users must make migrations this year as support ends for Exchange 5.5.Microsoft does not have a counter for Next Gen Mail, which provides users the option of rolling out low-cost, mail-only seats to workers who haven't traditionally had e-mail, such as shop floor workers. The catch, however, is that companies would have to deploy WebSphere.Microsoft for now cannot provide comprehensive e-mail deployment and pricing options that cover everyone from power users to occasional users.Lotus plans to price Next Gen Mail at $25 per seat, according to Lotus sources, about half the cost of a Domino seat. Microsoft's list price for Exchange is $67.Lotus also previewed the next major release of Domino, slated for 2004, that has an option to use DB2 as its back-end store. Like Next Gen Mail, it begins to give users a taste of Domino's Next-Generation platform. Support for DB2 also includes Domino's replication technology, which works between the Notes client and DB2 to let users synchronize data.The database is important because it provides scalability and combines data in one source, allowing developers new ways to use that data in applications.Microsoft is working on a similar database back end for an Exchange release called Kodiak that will use Microsoft's forthcoming Yukon database technology as its data store. However, the Kodiak release isn't slated until sometime in 2005 at the earliest. In the meantime, Microsoft will ship in June a release called Exchange Server 2003, which has lower cost-of-ownership features similar to those in Domino 6, which Lotus released last October.Microsoft's collaboration story also has been clouded by its move to pull collaborative features from Exchange and make them part of a module called Greenwich that plugs into the base operating system and provides instant messaging and conferencing. And Microsoft's announcement two weeks ago that it intends to acquire conferencing vendor PlaceWare has led many experts to question if Microsoft is shifting gears again.Like Microsoft, Lotus must develop Web services interfaces to its collaborative components to replace APIs that make integration more complex. Also, only one-third of the Domino install base also has WebSphere, according to company officials, so Lotus must nudge two-thirds of its install base toward WebSphere without alienating them."The way things are formulated I can try things and see if they work," says Jean Thibodeau, vice president of IS for Canam Manac Group, a Canadian steel manufacturer. "But hopefully I don't have to decide between Notes\/Domino and WebSphere. They are complementary."IBM has said its software strategy revolves around WebSphere and while Domino represents a revenue stream in the near term it could become a support burden in the future."The Domino base is a huge base, and that base needs to continue to build," IBM's Goyal said. "But it is not going to get me a billion users because it is not componentized."