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Lotus to play landlord

Lotus unveils software that lets companies and individuals "rent" space on Web sites to collaborate on documents.

Lotus Development (IBM) today announced plans to use its new Domino Web development tools to bring collaborative Internet computing to the massive and virtually uncharted market of small businesses and individual consumers.

The application, dubbed Domino Service Provider Applications (SPA), runs on the Lotus' Domino Web publishing component of its Notes groupware. Along with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the company will provide organizations and regular Netizens with essentially pre-fabricated Web sites that can made secure by firewalls and rented on a temporary basis starting later this quarter.

Like corporate intranets, groups of users will be able set up the sites to access and share databases, conduct group scheduling and threaded discussions via the Web and a standard browser. The capabilities - that employees of Fortune 500 companies already use in Lotus Notes, other groupware applications and on corporate intranets - will available as temporary "rentals."

Brian Bell, a Lotus vice president in charge of the company's Internet business, said the company wants to reach out to small and medium-sized business people and consumers as the Web moves rapidly from static pages to more interactive transactions.

Designed to work with the Notes client as well as with browsers, Bell said he expects the service "will bring a whole new class of users to Notes."

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be the landlords, essentially providing outsourcing of the time-consuming and technical jobs of creating and maintaining the Web sites. Many of the details - like how the tools will be deployed and how much the service will cost - are still undetermined.

Yet, Netcom, an ISP with nationwide reach, will roll out the first service in a market trial set for December. Lotus said it is also talking to several telecommunications companies worldwide, including US West, British Telecom, IBM's Global Network and Compuserve.

Domino, which is the Internet component to Notes and uses the same server, is still in beta testing. It will be shipped with 4.5 version of Notes when the groupware product completes its beta run in the fourth quarter.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based subsidiary of IBM is also beta testing Domino.Action, a tool that does the technical work behind setting up a Web site. Lotus developers, with some help from NETCOM, are adapting the tool to the ISP hosting scenario so that ISP's will be able to sent up a multitude of Web sites and then manage and track usage for billing. Another new application, Domino.Collaboration will offer the core discussion, file library, calendaring and task management applications, the company said.

Bell said Lotus's 16,000 business partners worldwide will also benefit from opportunities to tailor thousands of Notes and Domino applications to the ISP environment. Lotus has also invited its partners to customize the Web site creation tools for smaller ISPs, an arrangement Lotus hopes will make the service widely available worldwide.

The move amounts to a preemptive strike on the potentially lucrative mass market for collaboration on the Internet. It comes as the market grows crowded with Web-based groupware start ups and established software developers like Netscape, Microsoft and Digital seeking to cash in on the market shift toward transaction-based tools and beyond large enterprises. Today, Netscape made a move on this market announcing the next generation of SuiteSpot, while Digital's Altavista service recently launched its ForumForum "virtual office tower," where users can temporarily collaborate in it's online "office suites."

Bell said individuals might use the site to organize a class reunion or a wedding. Eric Brown, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, offered another example. He said he would like to set one up for his son's little league team.

Brown said the move will help Lotus create a prominent position and win customers, revenues and exposure in the emerging market for outsourcing of Web services.

"Everyone is looking to reach a much broader audience of end users, right now," Brown said. "They get to leverage three existing technologies in one swing."

He said that the concept of groupware has been influenced by the industry trend toward open standards and interoperablity. "The vision is that - like the telephone - everyone will have one," said Brown.

"Outsourcing is going to be a wild business," as more small companies that comprise the bulk of the U.S. businesses take advantage of the Internet for a wide range of activities from private intranet applications to public advertising and customer service, predicted Brown.