IBM Domino goes to the enterprise social but will anyone ask it to dance?

IBM has steadily improved its social business suite and has it poised for a comeback. But can Domino and Notes break into new markets?

IBM has quietly strengthened its position in the social business market by tying together its venerable Domino and Notes products with the more modern IBM Connections Suite.

While some say IBM has done a commendable job, the company has done its work a bit too quietly for its own good.

The company's offerings still lag far behind the Microsoft juggernaut of Exchange and SharePoint, which ripped the market leadership away from Domino and Notes in the early and mid-2000s. Throw in the more recent arrival of the Office 365 suite of server applications to Microsoft's collaboration mix, as well as Google's lineup, and IBM's hopes of a return to prominence appear remote.

"Domino [and Notes] dominated in the early days until SharePoint and Outlook spurred that massive migration," said Alan Lepofsky, principal analyst with Constellation Research, Inc., a tech advisory firm. "Then the social revolution blew in and after a while it wasn't about Notes and Domino anymore."

"One of the issues is people don't use IBM products in their personal lives. When you go home you use Microsoft, Google and Apple products."

Alan Lepofsky, analyst, Constellation Research

Still, IBM has managed to keep Domino and Notes alive in a number of Fortune 500 accounts as well as large government institutions, where it remains the heart and lungs of those collaboration and communication systems.

In a report last year Gartner praised IBM Connections as one of the first products to target the social software market. The report noted IBM has done a good job tying Connections to its other social business portfolio products, including IBM Domino, IBM Notes and the Websphere Portal Server.

According to the report, Connections is increasingly being used in more demanding situations by larger organizations. "All the reference customers with more than 10,000 users commented on the product's straightforward implementation," according to the report.

Gartner estimated the enterprise social software market to be $840 million in worldwide revenue with a compound annual growth rate of 13.4%, growing to $1.4 billion by 2016.

Microsoft inadvertently builds a case for Domino, Notes

IBM has helped its own cause through steady feature improvements in its core collaboration and social business products, but some observers think it may get some inadvertent help from Microsoft.

They see a pullback from some Microsoft users who are still deliberating on the merits of the company's cloud-based offerings including its Office 365 suite, as well as the end of Windows XP technical support this month.

"There is more ground [IBM] can gain, partly through features they have slowly added, but also the inflection point Microsoft is hitting with the cloud-based versions of Office," said Charles King, principal analyst and president, Pund-IT, Inc. "Some corporate users who want to keep using Windows XP are also pushing back."

King believes IBM could further help its own collaboration and social business strategies by more closely working with its value-added resellers and other business partners, who have many more face-to-face meetings with small and medium-size IT shops. That end of the market has long been Microsoft's stronghold.

IBM collaboration suite benefits from modularity, SoftLayer

What is appealing about IBM's approach to collaborative social business is that the Domino, Notes and the components of the IBM Connections Suite can be pieced together as a modular software stack, according to Nigel Fortlage, CIO and social business leader at GHY International.  This has allowed him to roll out the stack piece by piece making sure it works properly with the rest of the IT environment.

He also likes the idea of a stack because it eliminates a number of older disparate pieces that can make the life for his IT professionals and users technically difficult and expensive.

"Our users told us something very interesting a year back: stop reinventing  things that give us a new website or another app to run; put it all in one stack and make our lives easier for a change," Fortlage said. "We have focused on shrinking the number of stacks we use ever since."

Another factor that could help push Domino, Notes and other collaboration pieces toward the social business limelight is SoftLayer, the cloud platform that has become the focal point for so many of IBM's strategies over the past year. SoftLayer could significantly reduce upfront and ongoing costs by eliminating a good chunk of the existing infrastructure Domino requires.

"You can now host Domino apps in a SoftLayer environment so companies don't need their own Domino infrastructure. The can just spin up a SoftLayer instance to access their Domino apps," Lepofsky said.

IBM Connections, Domino updates

IBM updated both IBM Connections and Domino last year with versions 4.5 and 9.0 respectively. Some of those enhancements included improvements to the IBM Connections Content Manager, which has many of the same capabilities of Sharepoint, along with a number of social computing additions to each product.

As a way to lure Exchange/Outlook users, IBM has even made it easier for IT admins to replicate the look and feel of Outlook.

"Some people must have Outlook because they are so used to the way it looks, but you can pretty much duplicate that now with Domino 9," Fortlage said.

While some opportunities for IBM could open up, the company still must discover ways to reach new users outside its Big Blue user base.

Given that IBM doesn't have the dual focus on both business users and consumer that Microsoft and Google have, some observers believe this could prove difficult.

"One of the issues is people don't use IBM products in their personal lives. When you go home you use Microsoft, Google and Apple products, but there is very little IBM tech in your face," said Lepofsky.

IBM needs to plumb new -- at least new for IBM -- vertical markets such as real estate companies, smaller law firms, startups, and companies looking to go international.

"They need to focus on companies looking to go in new directions like those looking for cross language support, better compliance features or selling products to the visually impaired. Some of it is not sexy but IBM needs to stick to its strengths," Lepofsky said. 

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