Two free tickets to Lotusphere–is IBM's Lotus Notes Out of Touch With Web 2.0 World?

Next month is the annual Lotusphere conference. IBM is giving two free tickets to TC readers–leave a comment saying why you’d like to go to Lotusphere, and we’ll pick the winners by Monday morning. (Note: Passes cover conference registration only, not travel/hotel.)

Few pieces of software are as polarizing as Lotus Notes. When my last job forced me to use Notes, I found the interface clunky, the graphics Win 95’esqe, and the workflow architecture non-intuitive. Granted,  I was using Version 6.5 (Notes is now on Release 8), but even so I found it frustratingly unproductive. And I’m clearly not alone.

Probably the most famous Notes aficionado is David Allen of Getting Things Done fame. (The eProductivity application–built off the Notes platform–is David’s personal GTD tool.)

When I recently attended David’s GTD seminar, I was struck by the contrast between his fresh ideas, and the outdated nonsense of the Notes 6.5 interface. During this podcast, David directly asked, “Why do end users hate Lotus notes?” And then pointed out that most Notes users have no clue of the power of the tools they are using.

Which leaves me wondering–has IBM’s Lotus Notes lost touch with the user-centric web 2.0 world?

To answer these questions, I interviewed Kevin Cavanaugh, IBM’s VP in charge of the Notes/Domino group. Also joining us was Ed Brill, IBM’s Director of Messaging and Collaboration.
(My conclusions after the interview.)

Most people I talk with think Notes is dead or dying…

Notes has had seventeen straight quarters of growth. This year alone, we experienced 17% growth in Q1, 20% in Q2, and 10% in Q3. Over 60% of IBM business is overseas, and that’s mirrored in Lotus. Currently, out of the approximately 46,000 companies using the Notes/Domino platform, only 30% are US based.

What’s your target customer size?

Traditionally, IBM as a whole has focused on large enterprises. [The Notes group] average customer is a little smaller than the rest of IBM–we’re certainly more active in the small to medium business market.

Are you jumping on board the cloud bandwagon?

Generally, security concerns and the economics of cloud offerings aren’t as appealing to IBM, and larger enterprises. However, we recently released several cloud offerings for Lotus, including the Lotus Foundation, a remotely managed appliance targeting companies smaller than 250 people.

What’s up with the clunky UI?

Until R8, the UI was from 1995 era. We kept renovating under the hood, but not the UI. For R8, we significantly improved the UI, including over 2,000 usability tests.

New UI:

Clearly, you’re marketing to IT managers. Are you reaching out to end users?

Ed: We’re actively reaching out both online (Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, etc) and offline, trying to help people understand the power of Notes. When I was last in London, I met with a blogger to try to understand why he was so frustrated with Notes.

Why do so many people hate on Notes?

Ed: Users live in their messaging environment, and blame everything from network problems to a full inbox on Notes. But in this case, the ease of Notes deployment means many current installations are ten years old or more. They’re functional from an IT perspective, but still using the older UI.

Previously, I suggested that the next wave of knowledge management innovation may come from consumer applications invading the enterprise space. What are you doing to make the enterprise more accessible to users? (How are you avoiding a device-centric model?)

Ed: Notes has an online component–not just e-mail and calendar, but multiple collaborative tools including integrated IM, bookmarking, etc. We support Blackberries, Windows Mobile, and iPhone. RIM, in particular, is a huge partner, not just because they’ve deeply penetrated the enterprise space, but because they’re actively supporting this partnership. We’re also starting to partner with more startups building off the Notes platform–startups who traditionally weren’t in the enterprise space.

It was a fascinating interview–especially because IBM admits there are things that WERE wrong with Notes…

Over the past few years, Notes lost touch with users. David Allen may love the power, but those features are useless if people can’t figure out how to access them. It isn’t just poor training either–a proper UI intuitively guides users. (Note: I haven’t used R8, so can’t comment on current UI.)

What does the future hold for Lotus?

Clearly, Lotus is making money, and growing. Few web 2.0 companies can claim seventeen straight quarters of growth!

But refocusing on the international market avoids questions about Notes growth in the US market–a key group of core “small-medium enterprise” customers.

According to eProductivity founder Eric Mack, Lotus must shift focus:

The secret to a renaissance with Lotus Notes will be to focus on what end-users are doing with Notes. Come on, we are living in a web 2.0 world; users expect to have a say and they want to take ownership of the tools that they use. As long as [IBM] perceives Lotus Notes as something pushed down from the top–part of the ‘system’–the tools won’t become personal.

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Update: Originally I’d quoted Kevin as saying 10,000 companies use the Notes/Domino platform. Ed e-mailed me to say it’s actually 46,000.