E-Learning Curve

SAN MATEO (07/24/2000) - During the past year, Lotus Development Corp., as a unit of IBM Corp., has been steadily reinventing itself by focusing on collaboration, knowledge management, and distance learning as three separate but related markets. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, Lotus CTO Nick Shellness discussed how he sees these spaces evolving and how the Cambridge, Mass.-based company is maturing as a software organization within the IBM family of companies.

InfoWorld: How would you describe the business segments that Lotus is in today?

Shellness: The first is a segment we now call collaboration. The second comes under the umbrella of knowledge management, and the third we call e-learning.

InfoWorld: So collaboration would refer back to the company's traditional base of Notes groupware and e-mail applications then?

Shellness: We think of it as Notes plus other collaboration applications. If you look at where that is heading today, we're looking at handling all forms of content, not just e-mail, and storing all of that in a Domino repository.

As that content is increasingly generated by a wide variety of devices, such as PCs, cell phones, pagers, and PDAs [personal digital assistants], how will those devices be made aware of each other so that individual users don't have to manage multiple e-mail inboxes?

There is now what I call "personal area networks." The main player in that space is the Bluetooth technology, but there are now some alternatives emerging that have lower power requirements. I feel pretty strongly that we see a lot of these devices integrated into wireless PDAs. I'll even go a step further to say that down the road, all you're going to need to carry is a disk that can be plugged into any device.

InfoWorld: What are the challenges for software applications trying to deal with all these types of devices?

Shellness: There are three dimensions: The first is storing all the different media types in the same directory. The second is giving access to that data to a wide range of devices. And the other one is being able to do things in real time as well as asynchronously. The strength and the weakness of e-mail is that you don't have to be there to receive it, but there are times when you want to have a much more intimate form of communication. With things like instant messaging, the difference between what's asynchronous and what's synchronous is starting to blur. So down the road, we may do a deal with a cellular phone provider where we tell each other who is online and who isn't.

InfoWorld: So the concept of instant messaging should extend to a broad array of devices?

Shellness: Right. We call it awareness of presence. We've demonstrated some of this capability along with audio and video over IP. Tying things together is really important. The other crucial aspect of this is to be able to give people these services so people can create meetings ad hoc that are administered by the end-users. So you take the administrator out of the process.

InfoWorld: Do you see Lotus offering these services as an ASP [application service provider]?

Shellness: We will be interested in offering services that help people get started quickly, but we're not naive enough to say we'll be the only ASP offering this service.

InfoWorld: How broadly does Lotus define knowledge management?

Shellness: We've always had a broad-brush approach that includes business intelligence, data mining, and the portal space, which we're going after with our Raven product. Raven is really about the discovery engine behind that product, which if you think about it, is the next generation of search.

InfoWorld: Is distance learning really a mainstream business?

Shellness: We think it can be a multibillion dollar business, and we think it will be the enterprise space that will get there first.

InfoWorld: What does a technology such as XML mean for a company like Lotus?

Shellness: Domino, in the next release, will be aware of XML as a first-class data type. I'm very excited about that because it fits nicely from where we have always come from.

In some ways, XML is God's gift to Lotus. [The emergence of XML] allows us to externalize a lot of things that historically we had to code. One of the issues is that you did not have bidirectional content management in Notes. Now we can hand XML back to other applications.

InfoWorld: What's the relationship between Notes and IBM's WebSphere platform?

Shellness: WebSphere is a set of middleware. The real-ity is that there are differences that are quite deep, so you wind up with two sets of middleware that have to live together. We are doing a lot of work to make that happen, with a single directory, common security, and a single log-on capability.

InfoWorld: So over time will these middleware architectures meld together?

Shellness: Absolutely.

InfoWorld: What keeps you up at night?

Shellness: IBM acquired Lotus and for many years had a hands-off approach. We are now, for many good reasons, becoming much more a part of IBM. That brings cultural change, primarily in the developer community. So we spend a lot of time talking to people about that.

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