[This article reprises David DeJean's on-scene, colorful, opinionated reports from Lotusphere, originally published on InformationWeek.com's blog.]
The best things about the IBM Lotusphere conference, which was held recently (Jan. 21 " 25) in Orlando, Fla., are the glimpses it gives you of the future of computing.
The various IBM Research labs send representatives who staff a room filled with demo pedestals -- two dozen this year -- where creators show off their projects. This year, as usual, several projects look like good prospects to become future products, and IBM Lotus has even put one up on the Web so you can get a look at it even though you're not at the conference.
The IBM Research projects presented at Lotusphere have always revolved around improving the computer user's lot -- e-mail in-boxes that presented threaded responses showed up at Lotusphere long before they appeared in Gmail, for example. Increasingly these projects are showing up in Lotus products, as well: the newly announced IBM Lotus Connections and IBM Lotus Quickr have obvious ancestors that first surfaced in the labs.
This morning [Jan. 23] I looked around the Research pedestals and placed some mental bets on the ideas and technologies most likely to show up in shipping products. I liked three in particular:
One Research labs project you can get a look at is called "Many Eyes." It's an experimental Web site that aims to let people have online conversations about data, according to Matt McKeon, who presented it at Lotusphere. At the Many Eyes Web site you can upload data, create visualizations of datasets, and join contextual discussions.
IBM has launched "Many Eyes" as a "public alpha" that shows off its commitment to social software.
There are several sample datasets already uploaded to the site, and you can apply 14 different visualizations that range from prosaic pie charts to exotic treemaps. (A treemap is hard to explain. Here's one that compares auto mileage by make:
This thumbnail is one of the many features of the site: click on a button labeled "Blog This" and Many Eyes writes the HTML for you to copy into your own page.)
Try "Many Eyes" out. It looks like the future.
DisneyWorld is such an appropriate setting for Lotusphere, IBM Lotus' annual lovefest for its customers, developers, and business partners. There's been a strong element of fantasy in Lotus' product direct direction for the last half a dozen years. But on Jan. 22, at the conference, there was a change, as general manager Mike Rhodin announced two new social-computing products, Quickr and Lotus Connections, that could be real-world successes. Even more important, he killed an old one, the poorly defined Workplace.
Rhodin didn't make any announcements about the unmourned passing of Workplace, either from the stage during the flash-and-dazzle opening to Lotusphere 2007's 7,000 attendees or in the news conference that followed. He waited to be asked, and in his answer, I'm afraid he proved once again that hindsight is more ... flattering ... than foresight.
The original reason for Workplace, he said, was to shake up the Lotus Notes development team. Lotus needed to get some new ideas into its products, he said, and every time he brought some up with the developers they had a hundred reasons why they couldn't do them. Workplace, according to his version of history, became a stalking-horse, a way to set up a separate development team to do "out-of-band work for innovation." With the work done, he said, the innovative pieces are being folded back into the core brands.
"At the same time," he continued, "you guys [referring to the press and analysts in the room] were telling us we were confusing the hell out of you with Notes and Workplace and maybe there should just be one brand. So we made it one brand."
Truth to tell, it wasn't just the press that was confused. Lotus' customers also were confused as hell. IBM first announced Workplace about five years ago, a few years after it acquired Lotus. At the time, Workplace looked like a classic customer-base squeeze: Buy a company, force its customers onto your product (Workplace), and then dump the product (Notes), the culture, and probably most of the employees of the company you bought.
But it is a testament to the staying power, not only of Lotus Notes but of the customer community that has grown up around it, that it hasn't gone that way. What's happened is that the technology base of the product has transitioned from a proprietary client to an open source platform, Eclipse, while the proprietary server has transitioned from a closed system to a very open one that accommodates and interacts with the major innovations in computing since the Web browser mobile devices, portals, real-time collaboration, and now social computing.
At the news conference, Lotus executives laid out five product announcements. Two of them are new and relate what Rhodin in the opening session called "born-on-the-Web" ideas about social computing to business collaboration applications:
The other three announcements covered well-established IBM Lotus products:
There's a lot of energy in the Lotus community, both from IBM employees and Lotus customers, around these new versions and new products, and the renewed focus on the Notes brand. Connections and Quickr seem to be aimed directly at reinvigorating Lotus' struggle for the collaboration marketplace with Microsoft to good effect, according to Burton Group analyst Peter O'Kelly, who told the Reuters news service, "I think IBM is playing offense here."
Workplace is gone, and good riddance.