Does IBM Lotus Really Want to Get Small? My Take on Brent Leary’s Podcast

I still haven’t had time to write about Lotusphere 2010, but in the meantime, you may want to listen to the conversation I had with small business guru and friend Brent Leary. Last week, Brent interviewed me about my take on this year’s Lotus event, announcements and news.

Naturally, our conversation centered on the small business angle, which Brent quite appropriately titled, Does IBM Really Want to Get Small? Thoughts From The Lotusphere with Laurie McCabe. Like many others before him, Brent was curious about how serious IBM really is about pursuing small businesses—and ready to gear up against some very serious competition from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Zoho and others to win small business hearts and minds. You can listen to or download the conversation here (just scroll to the bottom of the page).

IBM Lotus Foundations: A Real Choice for Small Businesses and Partners

As I mentioned in a blog I posted after Lotusphere 2009, IBM Lotus has been reluctant to go head to head with obvious rivals, particularly Microsoft. At Lotusphere, however, the company came out swinging, declaring intentions “shatter Windows” and “change desktop economics” with Symphony, the free Lotus desktop suite, and compete aggressively against Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) with the IBM Lotus Foundations appliance.

This new, feistier approach is paying off–as evidenced by the IBM’s announcement that it has signed up 1,000 Microsoft business partners for Foundations in just five months. I’m sure existing IBM Business Partners are liking this approach too. In the same blog post, I polled the question “How aggressive should Lotus be in marketing against competitive Microsoft solutions?” 62% of readers answered that they should “Take it to the limit–otherwise no one will pay attention.”

I first saw learned about the Lotus Foundation appliance at Lotusphere 2008, when it was still in development. I admit, I was skeptical—IBM has had a lot of false starts in the small business arena (remember when it acquired Whistle back in 1999?). Furthermore, Lotus hasn’t been a small business brand in years, and IBM usually refrains from aggressive, head-to-head competition against Microsoft.

But I went, and I saw, and this time, I think IBM is doing it right. I’ve had several demos at different IBM events, and Foundations makes good on its pledge to provide small businesses with an easy to use, turnkey collaboration solution—really! Foundations offers file storage, advanced backup and recovery, connectivity and security, collaboration and email and application services in one integrated package. Some of the things that set it apart include:

  • Automated installation and configuration; it discovers and maps the network for you, and auto-configures firewall and VPN, so you can deploy it in 30 minutes or less.
  • Automatic data backups, and full system recovery if a disaster should occur.
  • Symphony office productivity tools are bundled with, so you don’t need to buy Microsoft Office software.
  • Under the covers, you get the reliability and cost benefits of Linux and open source technologies (Foundations is priced less than Microsoft SBS servers), but you don’t have to know a thing about Linux or these technologies to run it.
  • It has the collaboration power of Lotus Notes and Domino, tailored for small businesses, with Notes clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

As important, IBM has factored in what’s often the biggest hurdle to getting momentum for new product: inertia. Outlook users can continue to use Outlook with Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook. And, IBM added VMware virtualization to Foundations, so you can also run Windows applications on it. Customers don’t have to give up things they already use–Outlook and Windows apps, such as Intuit QuickBooks. And, I almost forgot—you can also get a 30-day free trial, and it’s black and yellow, like a bumble bee.

The small business technology market and the channel partners that serve them are at a turning point. Many businesses are tired of dealing with the cost and complexity of Microsoft products and licensing, and channel partners are deciding that they need another option for serving customers that don’t want to deal with these hassles. This time, IBM is in the right place, at the right time, with the right solution, to give them a true alternative.

My Top Takeaways from Lotusphere 2009

As always. IBM’s Lotusphere has been chock full of announcements about new products, upgrades and partnerships. At Lotusphere, “resonance” was the overarching theme, framing the benefits of having multiple applications work in harmony to amplify the benefits of individual solutions, and create better business outcomes (or something like that, I’m paraphrasing here!).

One level down from that, I see a few top takeaways that cut across individual announcements and point to where IBM Lotus (which I’ll abbreviate to Lotus for the rest of this blog) is heading. Here are the takeaways that bubbled to the top for me.

1.    Expect Lotus to take a bolder marketing stance. In the past, Lotus has been reluctant to go head to head with obvious rivals, particularly Microsoft. But in the opening keynote, Lotus executives came out swinging, declaring intentions to “drive the decline of the Office Suite”, “shatter Windows” and “change desktop economics” with Symphony, the free Lotus desktop suite. Likewise, Lotus is positioning Foundations, which bundles e-mail, file sharing, document management and backup in a turnkey server appliance, aggressively against Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS). While I don’t expect Lotus to get as edgy as Apple has done with its Mac versus PC ads, I think we will see a feistier IBM Lotus persona going forward.

2.    Substantial, long-term strategy and investment to broaden the Lotus market. Large enterprises have always been a Lotus stronghold. But, running Lotus on premise can chew up a lot of IT resources, putting it out of reach for most small and medium businesses (SMBs), and branch offices in larger firms.  After some past unsuccessful attempts to field solutions for these businesses, it looks like Lotus finally has a handle on creating easier, simpler and more affordable solutions. The vendor is taking a hybrid approach, with a mix of customer premise and cloud solutions. LotusLive (www.LotusLive.com, formerly codenamed Bluehouse) moves Lotus firmly in the cloud, offering  an easy software-as-a-service (SaaS) on ramp  for social networking and collaboration (with Web email coming soon via IBM’s planned acquisition of OutBlaze, www.outblaze.com). LotusLive  integrates solutions from cloud computing partners, and enables “click to cloud” integration with customer premise applications. Lotus Foundations comes at the market from the opposite direction, providing customers a plug and play on premise collaboration and email solution. While Lotus still has a lot of work to do to clearly position and market these solutions (along with several other appliance and cloud offerings within IBM’s broader portfolio) it’s on the right track to finally tap into this huge market opportunity.

3.    New momentum and vitality in the Lotus partner ecosystem. Partners have always been key to bringing complete solutions and added value to Lotus customers. But, while Lotus has enjoyed solid relationships with longtime partners, it’s often missed the mark in attracting fresh faces.  At Lotusphere, the vendor unveiled new and newly strengthened relationships that breath new life into the ecosystem. Not surprisingly, LotusLive and Foundations are fertile ground for many of these. Skype, LinkedIn and salesforce.com are working with LotusLive to create integrated collaborative capabilities. For instance, Skype will integrate voice and video to enable customers to directly connect to Skype contacts from LotusLive.  Meanwhile, Lotus Foundations is adding 80 new partners per quarter to its volume SMB channel, and working with ISVs to build turnkey industry solutions. For example, SRC Solutions (www.src-solutions.com) is building streamlined records and document management solutions for schools, healthcare, public sector and other verticals on top of Foundations. Lotus is also deepening relationships with more traditional partners, such as SAP, as well. The two announced joint development of Alloy, which will link collaborative and core business process applications more tightly for users. And Smart Market, a one-stop solutions shop for customers, gives partners a new vehicle to reach, sell and support customers.

4.    Going Mobile. Lotus and RIM announced new enhancements for the Lotus BlackBerry, adding new client capabilities for Sametime and Connections, and editing functionality for Symphony. The two also announced BlackBerry platform support for and Domino Designer for X Pages, so that developers can develop and deploy once for both Domino and Blackberry. While Lotus took some knocks for not moving quickly enough on other mobile devices—most notably the iPhone—it will almost certainly duplicate its BlackBerry initiatives with other mobile device leaders.

5.    Changing the conversation about collaboration and social software. Lotus will be doing this on several levels: extended collaboration, the value the openness brings to the collaboration equation, and the importance of using collaboration to optimize talent. LotusLive provides a great example of how Lotus is focusing on extending collaboration beyond the firewall with easy, secure on demand collaboration. Tying into the overarching resonance theme, the vendor will turn up the volume on the value of openness is maximizing the business value of an integrated portfolio and partnerships. Last but not least, I think that Lotus will turn more of the conversation to the fact that today, many businesses have already cut costs to the bare bone; the new challenge will be to grow the top line by enabling people to be  as productive as possible. Look for Lotus to progressively socialize (no pun intended!) the importance of using collaborative and social solutions to make collaboration more fluid and friction-free across the value chain.

On its 20th anniversary, Lotus is opening a new chapter in its story, offering up some new and convincing alternatives to the status quo, and extending its reach into new markets. By making these strategic investments now, in a turbulent economy, Lotus has time to get the kinks worked out, and get ahead of the game for when things turn around.

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