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Lotus sends mixed messages

Attendees of Lotusphere went home excited about the company's future, thanks to a speech by IBM chief Lou Gerstner, but confused about planned software releases.

    ORLANDO, Florida--As the tropical sun sets on Lotus Development's annual Lotusphere trade show here, it's clear that the big news this week was not a new software application or technology partnership, but proof that Lou Gerstner, chairman of Lotus's parent company IBM (IBM), finally understands what makes the groupware king tick.

    The largest and arguably most successful Lotusphere in the event's four-year history found Lotus and IBM executives publicly declaring their cozy family relationship. They also took the opportunity to give the world notice of an IBM-Lotus alliance that not only belies last year's doomsayers, but signals a new strong position for the company in the software market.

    However, while attendees were overwhelmingly positive about Lotus's future, they did voice concerns over plans for several upcoming products.

    Notorious for an ironic inability to communicate its marketing strategy, Lotus befuddled attendees this week with a new client software strategy. The company announced plans to introduce no less than four new client packages this year for its Domino server, but did little to position the packages, leaving attendees bewildered.

    The four new clients will cost between $35 and $69 apiece and range from simple thin-client packages that will be paired with network computer terminals, to a couple of full-featured desktop offerings. They will all offer Domino security features and support multiple mailboxes, so people can check their mail with any browser while away from the office.

    On the lighter side is Lotus Mail, Java Edition, a browser written in Java, that is set to go to market in the first half of the year. It will have POP3, SMTP, IMAP, and POP4 support. A second lightweight client, Lotus Mail, is also set for delivery in the first half and will offer migration for users of Lotus's legacy messaging system cc:Mail.

    The thicker, pricier clients are code-named Lookout, which will be ready this summer, and Maui, which will be launched in the fourth quarter. They will support the same protocols as the thin clients plus others such as the calendaring and scheduling ICAP standard, IMAP4, and LDAP. Maui will also offer native HTML rendering and the MIME protocol for email attachments, Lotus said.

    All four clients have the same user interface, which Lotus officials maintain will streamline the job of training and service for organizations that choose to deploy more than one. Yet, customers seemed skeptical and show little interest in mixing and matching clients, which may prove problematic for Lotus executives, who said they want to steal customers from Qualcomm's Eudora and Netscape Communications.

    Still, despite the confusion, attendees came away from the confab with newfound warm fuzzies for Lotus. Analysts credited Gerstner's speech on Monday.

    Tom Austin, an analyst with the Gartner Group said Gerstner won important points with the 10,000 attendees by showing an understanding of Lotus's business that he clearly lacked at last year's event.

    "They are doing all the right things. IBM is providing technology [to Lotus] and Gerstner is closing sales," Austin said.

    Ian Campbell, an analyst with International Data Corporation said the Lotus team is taking its cue from Gerstner, as they line up to do battle with Microsoft and Netscape not only in the groupware market, but in the battle for supremacy in the Web server space. Lotus's aggressive first efforts to make thin-client, network computer software, Campbell says, is yet another indication that the IBM-Lotus combo has ambitious plans.

    "It's Gerstner. When he comes out and says we can take those guys in Redmond and Mountain View, people [at Lotus] get excited," said Campbell.