Can HCL put Humpty Dumpty back together again

Lotus Notes sat on a wall

Back in 1989 Lotus Notes was released and for many years it occupied a unique position in the software market. One of my favorite quotes from this era is found in the video below (at the 55 second mark) when a reporter asks “Lotus Notes, what the hell is it?”. The response (I assume from a business partner) is “… I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea. I just sell it!”

At the time the term Groupware was coined to describe a new category of software that brought people together to get work done. For many years Notes was a leader in this new category as other companies struggled to identify the secret sauce and reproduce it.

Lotus Notes had a great fall

There are many theories as to how it came to be that Notes fell from the highs of the 1990s. For me one of the significant events occurred in 1999 when it was decided to launch QuickPlace as a separate product rather than extend the Lotus Notes product into new areas of collaboration that were added by way of the Team Room template.

Working as a consultant at the time I was frustrated. I could see the potential presented by Team Rooms but the functionality was limited and the companies I worked for showed little or no interest in purchasing a second collaboration product from IBM.

Later in 2010 IBM created a new vision for collaboration known as Project Vulcan. There was a lot of interesting ideas for collaboration embedded in Vulcan. Instead of implementing that vision as part of “Notes Next”, IBM chose to focus its energies on Lotus Connections as a separate collaborative product.

Again I was frustrated. Clients I was working with showed little interest in purchasing Connections but they were often being courted by Microsoft to purchase SharePoint. My efforts to convince IBM of the threat posed by SharePoint failed. I was told that SharePoint competed against Connections and not Notes. Possibly because Notes was increasingly being positioned within IBM as an e-mail platform that happens to do applications rather than an application platform that happened to do mail (remember Groupware?).

For many years Notes/Domino has been the cash cow in the ICS portfolio. I simply don’t see that all the efforts made to increase revenue by developing and selling additional products such as QuickPlace, Workplace, Connections, and Watson Workspace has paid off. I wonder what would have happened if IBM had instead taken all those ideas for the evolution of Groupware and built them into the one product – Lotus Notes.

Can HCL and all of its men, put Humpty back together again?

That brings us to 2019 and what I see as a very significant announcement made by HCL this week at IBM Think. The “announcement” by Richard Jefts that HCL would be looking to bring the ICS (Lotus) products that will soon be under its control “closer together”. To me that single statement is perhaps one of the most significant made about the future direction of Notes/Domino for many years.

Note: While Red Pill Now has been working with HCL over the past 12 months on developing concepts and ideas for HCL Places – a new collaboration tool to be built on the Domino platform, I have no direct knowledge about HCL’s plans to bring these products together. The following is pure speculation on my part…

Let’s start with the opportunity presented. There is a lot happening in the no-code and low-code space at the moment. Not just as a tool for citizen developers to build their own applications, but also as a way for IT departments to lower the cost and time needed to build applications. How big? Big enough for Siemens to invest $730 million acquiring Mendix and its low-code platform.

Servers

We know that HCL’s focus is in providing on-premise solutions. One of the obvious ways for Notes and Connections to be brought together would be for Connections to be ported from Websphere to run on Domino servers bringing simplicity to the life of the Domino/Connections administrators. One could easily envisage Docker images that have both products pre-installed. Better still HCL could bundle the two products and sell them as a single offering.

Clients

The Notes client is seen by many as being a liability for the platform –failing to deliver the type of experience expected by users, developers, administrators, and desktop support staff for an application platform in 2019. Notes does provide some integration with Connections, but it is kludgy. There has been talk in recent years of porting Notes from Eclipse to a client with a much smaller footprint such as Electron. Perhaps in doing so, HCL may find a way to better integrate both Notes and Connections functionality in a new Electron client.

Low-Code

IBM had already invested heavily in creating a new low-code capability for Connections known as LiveGrid. At the time, a decision was made by a certain IBM engineer now working at HCL to focus on storing LiveGrid applications using MongoDB. I would suspect it would be a relatively easy task to uncouple MongoDB and substitute Domino’s NSF container in its place. The trick would then be integrate LiveGrid applications with Domino applications in a way that two could be interoperable. Not an easy task, but a challenge that would need to be ultimately met.

Collaboration

Persistent chat has become an important component of team collaboration in recent years. At Red Pill Now almost all our internal communication is done using Slack with e-mail being used largely to communicate with external customers. Now I do have some knowledge of what HCL are thinking in the area of chat so I cannot say too much here other than to offer one observation. In 1989 when Lotus Notes was first released, it was the integration of applications and e-mail that helped define groupware. 40 years later it is likely to be the integration of chat and applications that gives rise to a new type of collaboration platform.

Long Term

While Richard Jefts has been known to dress up as Marty McFly, I am not aware that HCL does in fact has a time machine (be it a DeLorean or a Lotus). But if he did, I suspect he may want to go back to the future and reverse some of the decisions made by IBM in the past that lead to the separation of Notes and Connections. In the absence of that, I suspect HCL may have to look at other ways to establish a collaboration platform that will compete in 2020 and beyond. I suspect the architectures of Notes/Domino and Connections come with too much baggage from the past to allow them to come together as a single seamless collaboration platform able to take on products such as Mendix, OutSystems, and Betty Blocks. This may lead to the need to create a new collaboration tool from scratch. If it did it would most likely need to consume existing data held in existing Domino applications and Connection communities. It would also need a migration path so that the code created for these platforms could be easily ported. My guess would be that Node.js would be a big part of such a product, which would mean any investment made by Domino developers today in building Notes applications using Node.js may pay off in the long run.

But it’s all speculation at this stage. It’s still early days but I definitely see huge opportunities if a way can be found to bring together the parts from the original Lotus. Not as a brand, but as a single collaboration platform that will be just as innovative and inspiring to a new generation of developers as Lotus Notes once was. Not really sure what the heck it is, other than it makes them feel like they are superman.

Peter Presnell
Peter Presnell
CEO at Red Pill NOW. Strategist, technologist, blogger, presenter, and IBM Champion 2011/12. For years many companies have invested heavily in the Notes/Domino platform and I see my role as helping to find paths forward for that investment.

3 Comments

  1. Timothy Briley says:

    At the end of the article, you mention that learning Node.js wouldn’t be a bad idea.

    Is that what you guys at Red Pill are doing for new apps today? Something like a DERN (Domino, Express, React, Node) stack?

    If not, what?

    • Hi Timothy…. Red Pill Now has always tried to position itself as being ahead of the curve. We were advocating moving away from XPages 4+ years ago when it was already clear to us as to how that story was going to end. It is equally clear that the future for the Domino platform, for pro-code at least, lies with JavaScript, Node.js, and LoopBack. To that end we are trying to take every opportunity we can to move in that direction. Node.js is not quite there yet, with the Dev Pack yet to go gold and lacking a number of APIs needed to fully replace alternatives such as Java and LotusScript.

  2. […] möchte ich noch einen Blog-Beitrag von Peter Presnell, dem CEO von Red Pill NOW, nicht unerwähnt lassen. Er beschreibt zunächst die […]

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