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IBM sees innovations in Notes

Search on "Friday meeting" and get related files, e-mails, even IMs. Pull apart Notes apps and create new ones. Can Big Blue deliver?

IBM's Lotus division unveiled on Tuesday some of the features it plans to build into future versions of its Notes software, previewing a number of new tools aimed at helping people share information across its various applications.

Though Lotus isn't scheduled to introduce its Notes 7 version of the collaboration package until the third quarter of 2005, the unit is already showing off some of the capabilities that it's working to add to a later iteration of the software. Branded with the code name "Hannover," the future version of Notes--which is technically considered client software and includes e-mail, instant messaging and calendar applications--is planned to arrive 12 to 18 months after the release of Notes 7.

According to Lotus officials, at least part of the reason behind divulging its future plans for Notes is to quiet rumors that the company remains uncommitted to the product line, which competes directly against the dominant Office productivity and collaboration software made by Microsoft. IBM maintains that demand for Notes is growing quickly and reported that sales of the software, along with its Domino server package, jumped by 17 percent during the final quarter of 2004 and the first quarter of 2005. IBM claims that there are roughly 118 million Notes users worldwide today.

With Notes 7, much of the Lotus unit's work was aimed at improving the underlying server software that controls performance of the overall package, said Mike Loria, director of product marketing at IBM Lotus Software. In building Hannover, which was initially previewed by IBM General Manager Dr. Ambuj Goyal at a conference in Germany on Tuesday morning, much of the effort will be focused on streamlining the ways in which individuals can manage and share information stored throughout the tools.

"This is really about the idea of activity-based computing," said Loria. "A lot of what happens in the e-mail in-box is actually business process, and we can create an environment where those processes can be stored, named, and integrated across applications, to gain productivity by remaining focused on the activity, more than the format."

For example, Hannover will be designed to let people organize and manage their information based on a specific project or topic across various Notes tools. Using a demonstration version of the software, Loria showed that if a person were to click on an e-mail related to a specific issue, he or she could quickly access all of the correspondence that might have been received about the topic from others, regardless of the manner in which those messages were sent. Data could also be organized to reflect communications with a particular person, or group of people, using the software.

Another element of Hannover previewed by IBM was the software's ability to let customers create composite applications, a manner of assembling software tools by linking together prewritten programs. Using that approach, someone could essentially use different aspects of various programs together in order to create additional programs that meet their specific needs.

At least one industry watcher observed that the composite-applications plans illustrate something of a shift for IBM, as the company hasn't talked about the possibility for utilizing the tools in that manner with Notes before. Erica Rugullies, analyst with Forrester Research, said the composite plans could open up Notes to a number of new uses in the future, if IBM can deliver.

"The framework underlying the Notes client software gives IBM the capability to do this sort of thing, and it will make Notes potentially more valuable if it can be used to access applications other than those built on Domino," she said.

In general, the analyst said, IBM's work to align Notes increasingly with the manner in which people want to do their work, by making information more available across applications, could represent a significant step forward.

"Rather than trying to find content based on its format, people will be able to relate information more to their activities, which is a much more intuitive, logical way to mimic the way that people work," said Rugullies. IBM "can differentiate from Office with this approach, because Microsoft isn't talking about building Office 12 in the same way."