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Lotus bets the house on open collaboration plan

IBM/Lotus is juicing its collaboration tools with a dose of analytics and cloud-based integration with the belief it can redefine the technology, meet the needs of a sophisticated new user generation, and put the screws to an expanding field of competitors.

Web 2.0 tools have turned collaboration software back into a wide-open game, experts say, and Lotus responded last week by unveiling Project Vulcan.

Vulcan is a concept for a platform of online and on-premises capabilities, both old and new, integrated via an open framework on the back end and by analytic software on the front end. The first manifestation of Vulcan will come when IBM/Lotus releases a set of developer tools into beta later this year.

The tools are a down payment on the forward-looking Vulcan strategy that analysts and users say signals Lotus is a strategic asset to IBM like never before.

But the big question is whether Lotus can pull it off. Keeping its promise to drive everything with standards and open APIs, such as HTML5 and REST, and adapt to a services delivery model will be the determining factor.

In addition, research shows it will have to convince users they need IBM social collaboration tools, a group the company has not traditionally targeted. A survey last year by user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group showed that the most successful social media initiatives “start as unsanctioned, grassroots efforts led by front-line workers.”

“Everything is in play now in the collaboration space,” says James Governor, principle analyst with RedMonk. “Everyone is reassessing the cost of things, the value of things, their vendor relationships. There are a new set of buyers. E-mail was an IT phenomenon, but collaboration in the 2.0 style is a business-led phenomenon.”

Traditional rival Microsoft is headed toward a similar collaboration strategy, but with less emphasis on the open architecture, as is Google and Cisco, and new entrants such as VMware, which recently bought Zimbra from Yahoo.

Governor, who discloses that Lotus is a client to his consultancy, says that Lotus so far has learned more from the Web than Microsoft and is putting that knowledge to good use. “I think IBM is more confident and better equipped than it has been in a long, long time with Lotus.”

At Lotusphere last week, IBM/Lotus showed its hand with Vulcan. It also unveiled coming improvements to its range of collaboration software, such as it social software suite Connections and unified communications platform Sametime. It introduced LotusLive Notes, a service IBM will host, and LotusLive Labs, a joint effort between Lotus Software and IBM Research that will allow users and IT to examine the newest tools Lotus is creating.

“I think customers are very content,” says Bruce Elgort, president of Elguji Software. “What they did not see [at Lotusphere] is yet another set of versions, another set of features. They saw continuity, they saw that Vulcan is the Lotus vision for consuming services, something that is more standards-based and they saw software like Connections that is ready for the enterprise.”

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