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Microsoft courts Lotus developers

On the eve of Lotus' annual user conference, Microsoft and other rivals are wooing developers who are unwilling to follow Lotus to a new Java programming model.

As IBM rallies the troops at its Lotusphere conference next week, Microsoft and other software makers are practicing their own pitches to attract Lotus developers alienated by IBM's increasing focus on Java.

Microsoft says its development tools and some server products will let Lotus developers to continue working in the way they're used to. And Trilog Group, a small software maker specializing in Lotus development tools, is offering a set of tools that let developers write Java-based applications in an environment that looks like familiar LotusScript tools.

IBM announced plans two years ago to use Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) as the framework for Lotus, its family of applications for office tasks such as e-mail and collaboration. The changeover is intended to make it easier for Lotus products to interact with other business applications, such IBM's WebSphere application server, as IBM focuses on its Workplace strategy and other server-based tools.

But the switchover has left many Lotus and Domino developers, long accustomed to working in LotusScript--the company's native programming method--with tough choices about whether and how they should aquire Java skills.

Ken Bisconti, vice president of Workplace products for Lotus, said the majority of the 500,000 active Lotus developers are finding comfortable ways to adopt to Java. LotusScript developers can find similar script-oriented capabilities in Javascript and its offshoots, while Domino developers used to doing low-level programming can work directly with Java code.

"When you try to address application development needs, you need to keep in mind there's a spectrum of application development requirements," Bisconti said. "We're trying to address that broad spectrum by providing products and education and tools that help developers at all levels."

Bisconti cited Portlet Builder for Domino, a set of IBM tools for adapting Domino applications so they can be consumed within the portal software design used by Workplace, as an example of an easy way for Lotus developers to transition to the new model.

"You have a choice--as an end user, you can use a tool like Portlet Builder without having to go into deep Java coding," he said. "Or you can use Domino's Java APIs (application programming interfaces) to get very low-level access into the code."

Microsoft makes a pitch
Microsoft, however, is betting some Lotus developers would rather just switch to Microsoft tools that require few new skills.

"LotusScript is very, very similar to VB (Microsoft's VisualBasic), similar to the point where it's possible to take VB code, cut and paste it into a LotusScript routine and it works," said Jim Bernardo, lead product manager for Microsoft's Exchange team. "A LotusScript developer can immediately be productive in our development environment. J2EE is a much different ball game."

Bernardo said Microsoft is quietly working with Lotus developers to tout the advantage of using VisualBasic or VisualStudio.Net to extend and update their Lotus work. And while those developers are contemplating migration, Microsoft figures it can make a pitch for moving their whole business from Lotus to Microsoft's Exchange e-mail server and collaboration software.

"A lot of IBM customers, particularly Lotus notes customers, are looking at this and seeing it as an opportunity to re-evaluate their choices," he said. "The perception is there's a new world coming. It's no longer a question of should we migrate to something else, but what is that something else going to be? From a Microsoft perspective, we view that as a huge opportunity."

Bisconti said the majority of Lotus developers and customers understand the benefits of moving into a larger Workplace/WebSphere world of Web-based applications.

"By getting developers to a Java/J2EE world, hopefully we've expanded their scope and the scope of the business problems they're able to solve," he said. "It's taken a little bit of time for the die-hards to see the expanded opportunity they could address...but the majority of our partners are very comfortable now in Java."

One company hoping to make Lotus developers a little more comfortable is Trilog, whose FlowBuilder software lets them write J2EE applications in an environment that looks like LotusScript. Alex El Homsi, Trilog's CEO, said he's appeared before numerous Lotus developer groups and has found only a handful of programmer experienced in J2EE and only a few more that want to make the transition to a new workflow.

"Loss of productivity is the major inhibitor," he said. "It just takes so much more time to do anything in a new environment. If nothing is offered to them from a tools perspective...the only way they can make the move is learn a new development model and accept the loss of productivity."

El Homsi said that by giving developers a familiar interface, FlowBuilder allows them to concentrate on the knowledge they've built working with Lotus Notes and Domino rather than learning a new development model. "The Notes skills are extremely valuable--you're manipulating business concepts, working with documents," he said. "The Notes developer is generally closer to the business user, which is a real advantage"