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Big Blue urged to open Notes and Domino

Free advice for rich deaf ears

Ian Tree, the chief architect at IT consultancy Hadleigh Marshall Netherlands b.v. of Eindhoven, The Netherlands, has some free advice for IBM's Software Group: Take the Notes/Domino groupware stack open source with a community-developed programming model. The idea is to keep the Notes client and the Domino server relevant in a world becoming more accustomed to open source products.

Tree has started a campaign to get Big Blue to open up the code, and the first move in that campaign (and obviously the easiest one) was to send an open letter to Steve Mills, the general manager at IBM's Software Group, explaining why IBM should listen to the advice of a relatively small but very much interested Notes/Domino player. Since the retirement of Bill Zeitler, general manager of IBM's Systems and Technology Group in August, Mills has become one of the most powerful executives at the IT giant, second perhaps to chairman and CEO, Sam Palmisano.

While Mills has been perfectly happy to embrace open source software in the stack that IBM sells - and has even been willing to have Software Group make contributions to the open source community - IBM is nonetheless the poster boy for proprietary and (most-assuredly) closed software and the benefits that come from owning and controlling the development of bits of code that comprise an operating system, a database, scraps of middleware, or a groupware/messaging/application environment like Notes/Domino.

The Dutch chief architect at Hadleigh Marshall obviously knows this, but you can't get things in the world if you don't ask for them, even if asking doesn't make them happen. It gets the ball rolling. Someone a decade ago started asking why Solaris was not an open source operating system like Linux and earlier BSD Unixes, and while it took until early 2005 to get it done, Sun Microsystems listened to reason and got a lot of free public relations and marketing from the effort (which it surely could not have afforded) and was able to get the benefit of the doubt from IT shops and analysts alike as they watched the OpenSolaris experiment unfold.

While the opening up of Solaris has not helped Sun nearly as much as many Solaris enthusiasts had hoped, you could argue that if Sun had not done something dramatic back in 2005, the company would be far worse off than it is today.

This seems to be the kind of argument that Tree is making in his campaign to open source Notes/Domino. (You can read the letter here.)

"Over recent years we have seen the decreasing traction of the Domino product line among enterprise customers, lower conquest rates in small enterprises, and a lack of penetration in the SMB market," Tree writes. "This decline in position of the product has continued despite clear IBM commitment to the ongoing development, marketing and support of the product line. Competitors in the messaging and collaboration space are increasingly applying the 'legacy' tag to the product line and winning conversion projects that result in more expensive and less functional solutions for the existing customer base.

"As this FUD increases, the demise of the product line will accelerate. I will not dwell here on an analysis of the decline of the product; I merely note that this decline will be irreversible unless there is a fundamental change in the market positioning of the product line. If we are to arrest and reverse this decline, we need a paradigm shift in the marketplace, not a feature review."

Tree says that by open sourcing Notes/Domino, IBM could force competitors (unnamed, but mostly Microsoft and its Outlook/Exchange Server combo, Novell and its GroupWise, and a slew of open source alternatives) into "defensive positions." Tree believes that by taking the product open source, IBM will make Domino easier to push into government and educational institutions, will be able to support a wider variety of client devices, and will broaden the rapid application development environment inside Domino with extra languages and scripting environments.

By being an open source product, Tree is also hoping that Domino becomes something schools use to teach groupware and application development concepts, which is the holy grail for future market adoption. This is how various Unixes, relational databases, Linux, and a raft of other products eventually became commercialized.

While the idea of open sourcing any proprietary program is appealing, in as much as it sets a program free to live beyond the commitment (or lack thereof) of its originator, it is hard to see why open Notes/Domino would have any more impact than OpenSolaris.

The appeal of Linux is not just its open source development model and its free distribution, but the fact that it is ubiquitous across myriad chip architectures and therefore most server and desktop platforms. But Domino has already been ported from Windows to various Linuxes and Unixes as well as to IBM's own z/OS (formerly known as OS/390) and i/OS (formerly known as OS/400) mainframe and minicomputer platforms, which are obviously proprietary themselves.

But Domino was never going to be ubiquitous, not in a world with Windows on most desktops and the majority of servers and not with an Internet that allows all kinds of collaboration, something that was just an idea back in July 1995, when IBM shelled out $3.5bn to buy Lotus Development.

Back then, you will remember, the Internet and its Web interface were just going commercial in a big way. And groupware - particularly Notes/Domino, which enabled collaboration across networks and sophisticated application programming to boot - was going to be a big deal. What was even more clear to Big Blue - and perhaps more important in the short run - was that groupware would drive server sales. That $3.5bn was the most money IBM had ever paid to acquire a company up to that point in its eight-decade history, and it is safe to say that the incremental increase in server sales that IBM expected from Notes/Domino, as well as the leverage that IBM got from being a player in groupware up against Microsoft, were key reasons why IBM was willing to spend so much money to acquire Notes/Domino. Big Blue was just coming back from being nearly bankrupt.

IBM has already got its bait back and more on the Lotus deal, and in that sense, it can clearly afford to open source Notes/Domino. But maybe IBM would have been much more of a player had it bought Netscape before it went public. The Internet/Web combo has turned out to be a much broader and richer way to collaborate than Notes/Domino, and if anything, Lotus software has had to absorb Internet standards to remain relevant.

The fact is this: Open source is not the IBM way. The company is too keen on software patents and selling intellectual property. IBM wants to control what it owns - and to sell what it controls. It has shown no inclination to open source proprietary platforms, like z/OS, i/OS, and AIX, which could surely use an emotional boost in the marketplace. It is far more likely that IBM would embed Notes/Domino for free inside z/OS, AIX, and i/OS and distribute it for free with Linuxes from Red Hat and Novell as well as Solaris Unix from Sun and HP-UX from Hewlett-Packard than it would be for IBM to open source and distribute Notes/Domino. And even that is a stretch, since IBM doesn't give anything away - unless you want to count a handful of things Big Blue has donated to build up its street cred with the open source community. ®

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