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At a kosher deli, a customer was surprised when the waiter, who was Chinese, took his order in Yiddish.  On the way out, the diner asked the restaurant's manager how they found this remarkable waiter.  "Keep shtum," the manager replied, sotto voce.  "He thinks we're teaching him English!"

software details
Software in Focus
Lotus is sorely in need of a sales boost

IBM thinks it can persuade customers that Lotus offerings will make them part of the social networking phenomenon that has attracted more than 500 million users to Facebook and 200 million to Twitter, and that this will somehow be good for them.  How pathetic.  And how tone deaf!

With this kind of marketing, it's hardly surprising that Lotus is the only branded middleware line in IBM's software group that has falling revenue.  Does IBM think it can turn Lotus around by reminding customers and prospects of the wonderful effects cloud services have had on, for instance, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians, or Yemenites? Of course, IBM's presumed sales targets don't have to look as far away as North Africa or the Middle East to see just how helpful Facebook and its ilk can be.  They could, for instance, just stay in their chairs and Google for "lotus notes facebook" and pretty soon they could learn that some people don't love Lotus Notes.

If a Lotus user gets nervous about this, IBM could argue that companies setting up pseudo-social Web sites for employees or customers are not really taking any new chances because the people who might make mischief could always do so using the real thing instead of IBM's finnochio Facebook, or just set up a Web site.  For example, Alliance@IBM doesn't need access to internal IBM networks or Lotus technologies to unite the soon-to-be-outsourced workers of the world; it already has an ordinary website and a the CWA union has a related Facebook page.

facebook growth
Facebook's Boom
The fast-growing social network is immensely popular

IBM's presentations to industry analysts seem to say that IBM believes that freewheeling all-to-all communications services are a great thing for the enterprise.  And while corporate life might well be improved by a service that allowed any employee to start a discussion about ways to improve manufacturing efficiency or boost office morale or expose Joe Doaks as an incorrigible gooser, it's hard to see how promoting all this is a way for Lotus to better compete.

The most significant rival Lotus faces when it sells software that customers install on their own servers or clients is Microsoft, whose Exchange Server and Outlook are much more widely used than Domino and Notes.  Microsoft and Lotus may also be toe-to-toe rivals in cloud services, where IBM seems to be counting on Amazon's Web Services subsidiary to do what Big Blue's own service operations cannot.  Once in the cloud, though, Lotus is really amidst a struggle.  Microsoft's Live stuff is only part of the competition.  Google has offerings, too, plus possibly a severe case of market cap envy involving Facebook.  And then there is Facebook itself, which these days might be trying to eat Yahoo or something about that size (if Microsoft had not already done so), should a suitable meal and an abundance of cash appear at about the same time. 

twitter growth
Popular Twitter
It can't yet match Facebook's audience but it is still plenty hot

There are three related problems that Lotus, along with every other company or corporate division, is facing these days, problems that all seem to have become even more important now that the huge but mainly unharnessed power of social networks and other Internet technologies has become apparent: how to get employees to work together more effectively, how to foster the best and strongest ties to customers, and how to get the most help from suppliers.

There may be a solution or two or three that will arise as a product or byproduct of Facebook, Twitter, or whatever comes up next.  It's also possible that all the computer and network stuff anyone needs to help with the big three relationship problems have already been invented and deployed, and what is missing is only our learning to use the tools that are at hand.  If that's the case, IBM and Lotus stand a chance of moving ahead, at least if they figure things out at least as quickly as the younger and more nimble innovators can.  For starters, though, Lotus might have to simplify and clarify a collection of software packages and services that may be rich but which also is confusing.

IBM's primary "social" offering is what it calls Lotus Connections, more a laundry list than a product.  Maybe that's all too much, and instead you think you can start with a desktop client program that competes with, say, Outlook.  That thing would be Lotus Notes, initially a PC email client and collaboration tool that has metastasized into something that is supposed to enliven your iPhone experience.  Too simple? Afraid you might understand it? Well you can stretch out and contemplate Lotus Unified Communications, which is not unified at all but rather a collection of things unified by their location on an IBM web page.  Last and possibly least you can embrace the alternative choice, Lotus Quickr, which best I can figure does more or less what the other offerings do but under another name to protect the bloated marketing department.

If all that isn't enough to get you dizzy, imagine that you are not quite sure you can live with canned products and instead you want to build something on an IBM software platform or modify something IBM has on display.  IBM has thoughtfully built a developers' site for Lotus Connections that is as complex as the offering site.  IBM has a different site for developers working with Notes and Domino.  If that isn't enough of an overload, there's also a Web site for developers who like Quickr.  In addition, IBM has a place where you can learn to tinker with the Lotus instant messaging software.

Welcome to Lotusphere, the Big Blue brave new hoop-de-do world of Sybilware.

— Hesh Wiener January 2011

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