Our Views On Connect 2017

Last week Devin Olson and myself had the chance to attend IBM Connect 2017 in San Francisco. It was a new venue in a new location combining some of the traditions of the past along with a few things new and different. I had the chance to hear IBM’s message, discuss the events with a number of the people who attended as well as share ideas internally with the team at Red Pill Now. The following is a summary of my thoughts from this year’s event.

Application Modernization

After having the chance to meet with her community at Engage almost a year ago, new IBM GM Inhi Cho Suh along with Ed Brill announced details for something they called Application Modernization. This was a chance for IBM to respond to feedback from customers and business partners that IBM had failed to provide leadership in the application development space leaving millions of Notes applications without a clear direction forward. I didn’t have high expectations for the announcement as it was not really clear to me what IBM would be willing to do. What we got was a series of initiatives that were more tactical in nature than strategic. The announcements still left me wondering what the long term plan was. It is not clear to me if IBM wants to be in the application space once owned by Lotus Notes or if they are merely responding to customer pressure to keep the platform alive a little longer. I heard enough to keep me interested but not enough to make me feel bullish about the long term future of Domino as an application platform.

I left the event still believing the potential remained. I saw glimpses of hope. There was more mentions of Notes and Domino during the two OGS sessions than the last five years combined. We saw an IBM that was prepared to take one of its key products, Connections, and rebuild it from the ground up to support open standards and provide an environment that was more friendly to third part developers. And yes, we even saw the addition of two new @Functions. There was something there for almost everybody.

What Was Announced

Rest Services

Building on the REST strategy outlined at Connect in 2014, IBM have announced plans to add additional REST services to DAS. These are:-

  1. Directory Service – Browse/search Domino directories
  2. Contacts Service – Manage personal contacts in your mail file
  3. Mail Search Service – Search contents of your mail file
  4. Subscription Service – Poll for changes in a Notes application
  5. Management Service – Register users and manage groups

These announcements are important as they provide a cornerstone for building modern Web applications that surface Notes data without the need for the Notes Client or XPages. IBM also made frequent mentions of a new OpenNTF project, SmartNSF developed by Christian Gudemann that allows Notes developers to quickly build a REST API for Notes applications from inside Domino Designer. SmartNSF publishes YAML definitions , a standard IBM is promising to publish as part of its APIs. A related tool that got a few mentions is Swagger.

At Red Pill Now we have been building our own implementations of REST to overcome the many limitations of the existing REST Services available as part of DAS. We will be watching with interest as more details come out about the new REST APIs and how we can leverage them to surface additional content in our own solutions.

ApplicationInsights

IBM announced a partnership with Panagenda to provide a freemium offering called ApplicationInsights (not to be confused with Application Insights from Microsoft) that can assist organizations to better understand their existing portfolio of Notes applications based upon usage and complexity. To be made available in Q2 2017, ApplicationInsights will identify the 50 most used and most complex applications and does a code analysis of a subset of those. Additional insights can then be purchased.

Business Partner Solutions

The Application Modernization story was rounded out by featuring three Business Partner solutions for application modernization. We4IT’s aveedo provides a migration wizard to transform a Notes application to an XPages platform that can then be extended and maintained via an application editor. Darwino is an application development platform from Trilog built on a json data store that can replicate with Notes (and other) databases. The third partner is sapho, who have added a Domino connector to their product which generates micro services to deliver workflow applications.

Notes/Domino 9.0.1

Updated road maps for both Notes and Domino were presented. There was not a lot of new stuff covered. Key enhancements planned include Java 8, access to the ID Vault from LotusScript, SSJS and Java, two new @Functions (yes I said @functions) @ModifiedInThisFile and @AddedToThisFile, and adding the option of separating view indices from the NSF. These will be delivered as part of feature packs over the next 12-18 months. There are also plans to update a number of templates including the mail template and Pubnames.

Collaboration

Connections Pink

IBM announced plans for Connections 6. This includes a new design for the home page to provide better orientation for users as to the contents changes inside communities. Important improvements for the customization of home pages will be available along with enhancements to the on-boarding experience for new users.

The really significant announcement was Connections Pink. A new open architecture for IBM’s collaboration tools that will be built around technologies such as SWIFT, React.js, MongoDb, Ngnx, and Docker and will replace proprietary products such as Websphere and DB2.  This is clearest sign yet that IBM has a strategy for Connections moving forward that will see it evolve from a closed proprietary platform which was challenging for partners to extend (and customers to install) to a more open architecture that will fully support REST APIs and GraphQL.

There’s a part of me that wishes either Domino had a natural home as part of Connections Pink, or that a similar approach (Domino Pink) would be applied to Domino data.

LiveGrids

During the OGS IBM demonstrated a new capability called Live Grids that is under development. It allows new applications to be created as part of Connections Pink based upon the contents of existing spreadsheets. This is a capability that SharePoint has had for a while. IBM had previously worked on this concept as part of Notes/Domino but now look to be evaluating the option of bringing this into Connections. It was interesting that @Formula would form the basis for extending the data and connecting grids (@DBLookup). So that was two mentions of @Formula in the OGS!

A lot of Notes applications had their origins as spreadsheets. It is therefore interesting that IBM is looking to provide customers with the ability to turn spreadsheets into applications using Connections rather than Notes/Domino. This only adds to the confusion about IBM’s strategy for application development. I can see where LiveGrids could be attractive to power users who have long used Notes to build applications for their data but found XPages and JavaScript development a bridge too far.

Verse & Watson Workspace

The two OGS featured a lot of product demonstrations with announcements of a range of new features being added to Verse and what is now Watson Workplace (aka Toscana). They were nice but they didn’t really resonate with me. As a regular user of O365, G-Suite, and Slack I found most of the features being announced were things I already had been using for quite some time. I guess as a user of Notes and SameTime these may seem revolutionary, and certainly features long over-due in the IBM space. At one point in the demonstration Chris Crummey seemed to take pride in demonstrating the use of voice input to query a Notes/Verse calendar to show how Watson could understand his calendar but Google Home could not. To me, that was a problem, and not a selling point! If Google Home can’t understand my calendar I am not going to go out and add Watson to my team, I’m gonna go find a mail/calendaring system that Google Home or Amazon Echo can understand. We have a customer doing exactly that.

IBM provided conference attendees with access to the latest beta of Watson Workplace. I spent some time using the new product but failed to find anything that would compel me to move away from Slack.

The bottom line as I see it, is that IBM continues to work hard to keep its personal productivity tools such as mail and calendaring updated with new capabilities. But it is not doing it at a rate that it can significantly differentiate itself from its competitors. Verse is not a new way to work and it seemed that at this event IBM have moved away from that message. If you are already invested in IBM products then IBM seem to be doing enough to keep you invested in their offerings. If you have already migrated away, I doubt IBM is doing enough to win you back. And if you are a new company that is looking to make a choice the chances are that you will already have experience using O365 or GSuite and will feel more comfortable moving in that direction.

What’s Next

I don’t think IBM did a good job of outlining a strategy for application development, as opposed to an extended road map for Notes applications. I believe IBM’s intent was to make a set of announcements to get the ball rolling with application modernization and we will need to wait longer for the vision/strategy. Many of the people I spoke to were happy that there was finally some positive signs of IBM making an investment once more but still not sure if it would be enough to make Domino part of a CIO’s application strategy. Some hard-core Notes developers in the audience were ecstatic about finally getting some new @Functions to work with. Some XPages developers would be happy to see Java 8 should become available in 2017 along with a newer version of Eclipse. Web developers could see the opportunities provided by enhanced REST APIs.

If anything I came away from the conference consolidating my existing views. Notes (client) is dead, XPages is dying and Domino still has an identity crisis. IBM has developed a clear alternative for the Mail and Collaboration aspects of Notes as part of Connections/Verse/Watson but still seems to be struggling to integrate the application themselves. I was quite captivated by the OGS speaker, Dr Sheena Lyengar, and her account of the consequences of providing too much choice and how that can lead to people deferring decisions. At the moment it seems like IBM is not providing a clear choice for moving beyond Notes, which is part of the reason so many people are failing to take action with their aging Notes applications. If only there was just one solution for “Social Collaboration” just as there once was for “Groupware”.

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.

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