This year's Lotusphere could very well be a make-or-break moment for the Lotus brand and solution portfolio. I know that's pretty dramatic - but if you look at this through the lens of history and into the crystal ball of the future, I think it's a pretty accurate statement. I don't want this post to be a timeline and reflection on what's gone wrong over the past several years with Lotus but I do want to point out the two major themes that have negatively defined IBM's "thought leadership" and competitive positioning vs. Microsoft:
It started with the "Dual Highway" message...
There's no need to resurrect all the obvious and painful mistakes made by IBM as it attempted to "kill off" Lotus Notes and shift the install base over to a more portal-centric and J2EE-based platform architecture. The important point to remember is that the "strategy" demonstrated that IBM management (1) did not understand its customers, (2) did not understand the competitive advantage Lotus Notes/Domino had in the collaboration market, and (3) did not understand the nature of collaboration (a techno-centric focus).
Which evolved into a more business-centric "Workplace" theme...
Again, there's no need to recount the very heavy process management message around Workplace that may have sounded great to senior leadership teams (and probably was great for IBM consulting). But again, "Workplace" missed the mark when it came to collaboration. This era reflected IBM's portal-centric view to everything which ended up with a shot-gun wedding of sorts between the WebSphere and Lotus "tribes" within IBM. Internally, this "cultural alignment" was actually pretty important in my view. For customers however, getting IBM's internal house in order could matter less because by 2007 they were left with products that were viewed (at the time) as being behind what Microsoft now had to offer (e.g., Office SharePoint Server 2007, Office Communications Server 2007, and so on).
We can debate statistics but most people would generally agree that Microsoft has been on the upswing the last few years while IBM has been on the downswing.
Regardless whose numbers you want to believe, losing market share to Microsoft is one thing - losing mindshare to the world-at-large is far worse. Once you drop out of the conversation between business and IT strategists as they determine which collaboration solutions will carry them forward - it is very, very hard to re-engage ... to get people to "push the reset button" on their assumptions. When I talk to clients nowadays regarding their shift from IBM to Microsoft, or about Lotus in general, it is clear that many of them have developed a poor "mindset" about IBM and its Lotus portfolio. Even years after the "Dual Highway" and "Workplace" disasters - IBM is still battling to overcome those negative perceptions (viewpoints that Microsoft and other competitors are only happy to reinforce).
Is there any reason for optimism?
Lotusphere 2007 and Lotusphere 2008 were the first two events where IBM actually began to act like they had heard that "3:00 in the morning wake-up call" made popular in the U.S. political elections last year. First, it was the Sametime team in 2007. Sametime 7.5 and every release since then demonstrates that IBM understands the Unified Communications market, its role in that market, and how to work with partners to deliver solutions for its customers. It was the Lotus Connections team in 2008 who demonstrated that IBM really "got" social computing and delivered something to the market that was better than what Microsoft had to offer. In 2009, it will be left to the Notes/Domino and Symphony team to carry that torch. Quickr remains the one product that still seems to be a work-in-progress (perhaps it will be ready to be positioned as "the SharePoint alternative" and ready for prime time in 2010).
So what's not to like?
IBM's message remains complex. It comes across as a product manifest ("sure, we've got that..."). There's no compelling narrative that tells people a story where they can see themselves benefiting from the solutions vs. the individual products - and not much that would persuade someone to migrate from Microsoft to Lotus or forestall a migration from IBM to Microsoft. Yes, individual products are improving and individual teams behind those products are more energized (namely the Lotus Sametime and Connections teams) - but having a few products improve is not going to deliver the type of tipping point IBM needs in the market.
What does IBM need to do?
IBM needs a message that resonates beyond the "Notes faithful" that attend Lotusphere each ear. Compelling narratives are important. They can motivate and act as a call-to-action for people (the Obama campaign taught us that). I would hope to see the launch of a persuasive and convincing storyline that IBM can leverage throughout its go-to-market efforts in 2009. So far they are 0-2 though.
Since 2007, IBM has been laying the groundwork for this moment - to disrupt the current market momentum of Microsoft by catching them right before their next cycle of product releases. Lotusphere 2009 comes during a year when Microsoft will once again start up its marketing machine to tell the market about the upcoming "O14" wave of Office, Exchange, SharePoint and OCS. Business and IT strategists will be looking at their current Microsoft investments and once again deciding whether they made the right move - especially concerning SharePoint. IBM shops will be looking at their current Lotus investments and rendering similar judgements.
That's what makes this year's Lotusphere so important - the chance for IBM to stop playing catch-up in terms of mindshare and get out in front of Microsoft with a message that stands on its own merit - to describe how its modernized platform and solutions are forward-looking.
A great story alone is not going to change the world. I don't want to over-simplify IBM's challenges here. But technology alone is not going to cut it either. Having a great Sametime product or a great Connections product in-and-of-itself is not going to disrupt Microsoft. I hope IBM realizes that this year's event can be a much needed catalyst ... not only a catalyst for changing the mindset of people who might never before considered, or be open to re-considering, Lotus as the foundation for their collaboration strategy but a catalyst for its entire go-to-market effort this year. Another Lotusphere where we are presented with a litany of product and SaaS announcements would be a shame.