Lotus Notes will be either 20 or 15 years old Tuesday, depending on how you count. That product -- now morphed into the Domino-Notes tandem -- spawned a generation of solution providers who pioneered networked applications.
Plans for the revolutionary collaboration software or groupware were announced Dec. 7, 1984. And exactly five years later, Lotus Development Corp. launched Notes Release 1. The product was actually developed by Iris Associates, Ray Ozzie's startup, but backed by Lotus.
Since Notes was initially a direct sale -- buyers had to commit to at least 200 seats for $62,000, the partner story took a bit longer to develop. But develop it did.
Peter O'Kelly, who worked on the Notes team for years and is now a Burton Group analyst, recalls the issue. That whole direct-only enterprise sale strategy is "on my list of things we should have done differently. It was catastrophic," he recalls.
The rationale was sound at the time. "Back in the early to mid 90s, most companies couldn't even keep their file and print servers up let alone deal with enterprise messaging. Notes had to be boot-strapped. No one had public-key encryptions, Windows didn't even pick up enterprise-ready directories until 2000, and here we were in 1995," he said.
Ozzie himself, now chairman and president of Groove Networks, Beverly, Mass., acknowledged Notes' growing pains.
"Twenty-twenty hindsight is great, but at time, it was difficult to explain why Notes would be good for somebody, what was its value in way that was relevant to various enterprises," Ozzie told CRN. We talked about it in horizontal terms, it was a horizontal product in the rapid application development sphere."
David Via, vice president of business development at Wolcott Systems Group, Fairlawn, Ohio, a long-time Notes partner concurred. "IT didn't 'get' Notes in the beginning because they were too hung up on trying to figure exactly out what it was," Via said. "Lines of business didn't waste time deciding whether it was the most expensive e-mail system in the world or some kind of weak substitute for Visual Basic and Oracle -- once you showed them what it could do for them quickly and easily, it just spread like wildfire," he recalled.
The parnter groundswell started around Version 3, Ozzie recalls. At about that time, application development capabilities got to a point where Lotus or VARs or ISVs could really show off some capabilities.
"We got to the nifty-fifty applications and people could start cutting and pasting app snippets together and suddenly VARs were creating solutions that we never could have created in a million years," he said. "We didn't have the domain expertise or the customer knowledge." VARs were essentially building sales force automation (SFA) systems or CRM systems atop Notes before many of those acronyms were even coined.
In particular, Ozzie remembered such star VARs as Lante Corp.'s Mark Tebbe, MicroSolutions' Mark Cuban, and MFJ International's Mark Johnson doing very interesting application work with Notes.
"I don't know that Notes would have died but it sure would have languished if integrators had not picked up on it," Ozzie said.
As for the solution providers themselves, many are still hanging in, nearly 10 years after IBM bought Lotus and made some ham-handed moves that caused some to doubt IBM's commitment to the Domino/Notes lineup that had ostensibly driven the deal in the first place.
Ron Herardian, CEO of Global Systems Services, of Mountain View, Calif. has been involved with Notes since the early 1990s.
"There were a lot of firsts in Notes," Herardian said. "It was the first e-mail solution that included public key infrastructure -- encryption. It was the first application server Notes was pioneering in collaborative computing."
Around that VARs flocked to do real value-added application development work. "Lotus was successful in growing an ecosystem," he said. "It's eroded somewhat under IBM for a number of reasons, but since IBM itself is such a large channel it's hard to compare with the standalone Lotus organization. Under Lotus, Notes thrived and so did the community."
Via remembers that industry of partners growing around Notes very well.
"It was amazing to be a part of that exponential growth," he wrote in an e-mail. "Notes came along at a time when the Novell reseller channel -- then the envy of everyone in the software business -- was kind of adrift and the people who 'got it' all caught the Notes wave. In '92 when I first became a partner, that was the profile of 90 percent of the successful firms -- a Novell Platinum reseller looking for ways to offer more value as LANs became a commodity."
Partners today shake their heads trying to remember what the tech world was like as Notes was trying to break in.
"Lotus Notes embodied the nature of people working together as opposed to just systems working together," said Andrew Pollack, president of Northern Collaborative Technology, a Cumberland, Maine specialist. "Till then, file-and-print was the networked application. Before Notes gave us a reason to have networks, we were spending fortunes to have file and print sharing when it would have been cheaper to put a printer at every desk. To put it into perspective, TCP/IP was rare in corporate nets, people were spending big money on routers and switches and hubs just to keep printers up and LANs were proprietary."
Notes gave us a reason to have networks, Pollack said.