Lotus will begin limited testing of new Domino server packages and a new Notes client at the end of the month, according to the company.
The company plans to ship the software sometime in the third quarter, possibly as early as July, just as chief competitors Microsoft and Netscape Communications prepare their own upgrades, analysts said.
Lotus hopes the minor upgrades, dubbed Domino 4.6 and Notes 4.6, will help buttress its position as the market leader even as a growing crowd of competitors encroach on groupware turf.
Microsoft will issue a minor upgrade, which it calls a service pack, to its Exchange groupware this summer, while Netscape is beta-testing a new version of its Communicator browser and email suite.
Lotus is betting that the enhancements will keep existing customers loyal until it releases version 5.0 of the Domino server and Notes client late this year, which will further its Internet embrace with additional Java and protocol support.
"They are doing what they need to do to show that they are moving forward," said Heather Ashton, an analyst with the Hurwitz Group. "It's good timing."
Dataquest analyst Bob Lewin agreed. "This is a reaffirmation to users. It allows them to protect their installed base," Lewin said. "They are basically delivering on some of the things they talked about at Lotusphere." The company trade show took place in Orlando, Florida, four months ago.
Lotus outlined three new Web server options, including Lotus Domino 4.6, the company's flagship Web server that is the database for its groupware and can also be used to perform a variety of e-commerce and e-publishing tasks. The software will be the first to market, debuting this summer and selling for $1,495, the company said. A limited beta test will get under way later this month, and a public beta will start in June, the company said.
In the third quarter, Lotus also plans to deliver Lotus Domino Mail 4.6, a less powerful package that focuses on messaging. It was first discussed by Lotus and IBM earlier this spring as part of the Network Computing Framework (NCF). The NCF is Big Blue's road map for developing its Internet, e-commerce, network computing and enterprise businesses. The server also offers news group access and groupware features such real-time conferencing, calendaring and scheduling. It will cost $995 and will enter beta testing at the end of June.
Also slated for the third quarter is a lower-end Web server first unveiled as part of the NCF. The Lotus Go Webserver 5.0 is designed for building, deploying and maintaining Web sites. It costs $495. A package that includes the Lotus Go Webserver Pro along with tools for Web site creation is priced at $795. The tools include Lotus' Java applet maker, the BeanMachine 1.0, and NetObjects' Fusion 2.01 Web page production tool.
Lotus said today that the series of Web servers will feature support for IMAP4 (Internet Message Access Protocol) and the directory standard LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol), and the NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) news reader protocol. Enhanced Java integration means Java applets and agents can now be manipulated using Domino's agent management. The company has also come up with a tool to make it easier to setup and configure servers, allowing administration via a standard Web browser. For security the servers use SSL (Secure Socket Layers) and IBM's x.509 client and server certificates, the company said.
"The most important thing about this release is their move to support for the Internet standards," Ashton said.
The most significant change included in the Notes 4.6 client, formerly code-named LookOut, will be a new user interface that looks more like a Web browser. Lotus is scrapping the tabs that were the centerpiece of the old user interface. The new look will also debut a single "pane" user interface, instead of the double pane currently used by the Notes client.
The new UI will also let users view several applications without leaving the groupware client. The new client will also support POP3 and Java applets.
Improvements to the document library templates will allow Notes 4.6 users to launch programs such as Microsoft's Excel and Word, along with other pieces of the Office 97 suite, from within the Notes client for the first time. Word can be used to compose email instead of the Notes editor, for instance. Enhanced ActiveX support allows for closer integration between Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Notes off-line storage and indexing, the company said.
"It's a radical change for them," said Ashton, who applauded the move. "The UI had been getting pretty stagnant. There wasn't enough of a change in version 4.0, especially given the move to the Web."
Better contact management features will allow people to use the Notes address book, for instance, to address a memo written in Word without leaving the productivity application they are working in.
Notes 4.6 will cost $55 per mail client and $69 per desktop client, the company said.
The Notes client release to follow Notes 4.6 will be Notes 5.0, which will bring some important Internet protocols to the client side when it ships in the fourth quarter. Notes 5.0, formerly code-named Maui, will support IMAP4, LDAP and NNTP, the company said.
Lotus is working on additional improvements to the client's calendaring and scheduling that will likely roll to market with in the next 18 months, according to DataQuest's Lewin and Tom Austin, an analyst with the Gartner Group.
"Over the next 18 months they are going to increase the functionality to match some of the functionality of Organizer," said Austin said, referring to the company's personal information manager (PIM) Organizer 97.
Lewin said he expects Lotus to add support for Organizer's vCalendar and vCard. The vCalendar specification allows users to receive and respond to invitations electronically. The vCard works with a scanner to copy business cards and store them in an electronic Rolodex.