IBM out of the online services gate with mixed reviews

Big Blue sketches rough outline for LotusLive that draws harsh critiques from analysts, users

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.

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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."

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 a la 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.

Lotus officials said Outblaze includes a distributed administration technology and branding options IBM/Lotus lacked.

"We wanted to go a step further and do distribution models with telcos and other resellers, which is a key part of our strategy, or do private labeling or co-branding," says Sean Poulley, vice president of online collaboration service for Lotus Software. "We don't have those skills yet in our business so it makes sense to get additional intellectual property, assets and skills and integrate that." In addition, Outblaze brings along 40 million users.

But getting those assets means they have to be integrated into the platform.

"On the tech side, they are stitching together a lot of different moving parts," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Gartner. "With Engage you have Sametime for IM, Outblaze for e-mail, and activities from Lotus Connections. Delivering a platform stitched together from many parts and making it elegant is tough."

Others called LotusLive a panicked response to recent online collaboration moves by Microsoft, Cisco, and Google.

"It all indicates a lack of vision, a lack of a common architecture and I am not very impressed," said David Ferris, president and senior analyst with Ferris Research.

Outside of the analysts, some Lotusphere attendees also gave LotusLive a lukewarm reception.

Rene Vandal, a systems integrator with Telefilm Canada, said his company was busy building a WebSphere portal. "LotusLive looks interesting, but I don't think we'll have a solution like that."

An IT architect from a financial services firm, who requested anonymity, said his company was too wrapped up in a migration from Notes 6.5 to even think twice about LotusLive.

But it wasn't all cat-calling last week.

At Lotusphere, IBM/Lotus unveiled partnerships with LinkedIn, and Skype that will integrate those services into LotusLive. The partnerships provide an example of the extensibility of the platform, according to IBM/Lotus officials.

Maureen Shaffer, vice president of marketing for InSet Technologies, spoke at the LotusLive keynote to tout her small company's participation in the early-adopter program.

"I had been looking at Salesforce, Google Apps, and all sorts of different online solutions and I found I was going to have to pick pieces from different vendors and that it was going to be awkward to put together," said Shaffer, whose company lacks an IT staff.

She says the slate of LotusLive offerings in Engage are "fast and easy to use."

InSet mostly uses online Web conferencing, but also taps into file and contact sharing. Shaffer says she was pulled into the LotusLive program by Lotus partner Prolifiq.

"We just added our 17th employee today," she said. "So we are not in IBM's sweet spot."

And some analysts said LotusLive showed a lot of forethought on IBM's part, including using the Eclipse platform as the foundation to tie together not only IBM software but wares from third-parties as well.

"The vision they showed was comprehensive and beyond where I thought they were going six months ago," said Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC. "What IBM has built by adding social software and Symphony shows me this is a taking-the-gloves-off approach."

IBM/Lotus will need to get those gloves off if it plans to make a run in the crowded online collaboration services battle.

Studies from Ferris Research, IDC, Gartner, and others show that IBM/Lotus is losing ground in its on-premise software fight with Microsoft. Just last week, Gartner said Microsoft was widening its lead over IBM/Lotus. 

If that trend continues, the online market could be key to IBM/Lotus's future success in the collaboration space. Gartner predicts that by 2012, 20 percent of e-mail seats will be hosted. With that kind of growth the time to react is short.

"If you look at Microsoft, Google or Zimbra it took them about 18 to 24 months to get their services out there," said Karen Hobert, an independent consultant. "I'm thinking that IBM is in the middle of that cycle. If they get past the 24-month mark, if they don't make that window with a clear offering, they could be in trouble."

Hobert said one idea might be for IBM in that time to create online brands instead of traditional products/services. The brands would be based around functional areas such as a Notes messaging brand, a Connections social networking brand, a Quickr content management brand. Such a design could help IBM appeal to any size customer regardless of their needs.

"Potentially in the next year and a half we could have Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Yahoo, and Google competing for all the hosted enterprise business. That would be an interesting time," she said.

Network World is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "IBM out of the online services gate with mixed reviews" was originally published by Network World.