IBM Should Ditch Lotus

Last Updated Apr 15, 2009 5:46 PM EDT


IBM has been flogging Web-based collaboration tools for the better part of three years, but despite its valiant attempts at Web 2.0-style hipness, comes off less like the Fonz than Mrs. Cunningham.

The problem for IBM isn't the quality of its products, or the impressive amount of research it puts into adapting Web-based collaboration for the enterprise (IBM doesn't break out its research budget by category, but reports an annual R&D budget in excess of $6 billion on research and development). The problem, rather, is its corporate approach to piecing together application suites to suit its own goals rather than customer needs -- never mind its clear lack of Web savvy.

Let's look at its most recent product introduction, LotusLive Engage, what the company is calling an "integrated social networking and collaboration cloud service," which includes Web conferencing, file sharing, instant messaging, and team workspace capabilities. The application does not, however, include e-mail integration, which is silly, because people still use e-mail for collaborating. Bill Pray, a consultant with the Burton Group, notes:
The lack of e-mail in Engage and IBM's note on the hosted version of Notes that states "LotusLive Notes is designed primarily for companies with 1,000 to 10,000 employees" also indicate that IBM's hosted solutions need some time before being mature enough for the enterprise.
There's a simple explanation for this, of course: e-mail is part of LotusNotes, and IBM doesn't want to cannibalize that business. That's not a very customer-centric way of looking at things, but there you have it. IBM is a big company, and its product teams are as important a constituency as its customers.

Mike Gotta, also with the Burton Group, notes that IBM is also beset with conflicts between product groups within the same unit.
When vendors and product teams are locked into their solution so deeply that they cannot pivot and attack their own assumptions (sometimes because the disruption is not understood clearly), they miss an opportunity to respond and innovate. In this case, the source of innovation came from another IBM team (Connections). But customers will want capabilities being delivered by the Connections team to expand over time and if the two teams fail to coordinate roles and responsibilities, overlaps might be difficult to explain.
None of this even begins to address the absurdity of enterprise collaboration tools as distinct from public collaboration tools. Take something like IM: most people use AIM or Yahoo or Microsoft Messenger to communicate with friends and colleagues, and leave them open on their task trays all day long. Enterprise IM clients only include the names of colleagues and some partners, and are rarely used. Why? Because people use IM naturally to communicate with all their friends, colleagues, partners and family members almost indiscriminately. They're simultaneously messaging their spouses about dinner plans and their colleagues about an upcoming presentation. They don't want -- and seemingly refuse -- to use one IM client for business and one for personal use.

I've been given a look at a lot of Lotus Sametime collaboration tools, as well as other tools and features IBM has been concocting in its labs, and I admit they're very well-made. But they're not particularly useful to IBM customers. They're sold as bolt-on afterthoughts to other systems and earlier versions of communications products that continue to lose market share to similar products from Microsoft. And better applications are available on the Web, mostly for free, from more nimble competitors who monetize the products through services rather than license fees.

It's time for IBM to move on. It could probably get good value from either spinning off its Lotus division as a separate company, or selling it to a competitor that would know how to get the most value from the products.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.

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