To get to my interview with Nick Shelness on time, I had to set offprotocols that enable remote workers to stay connected, the Lotus vice president is now reaping the benefits, communicating with the vendor's US headquarters from his favourite spot in the farthest reaches of rural Scotland. from Hertfordshire by train at 6.15am. I arrived in central London at 9.05am, five minutes late due to delays on the Victoria Line. Shelness, on the other hand, left Scotland by plane at 7am and arrived on time.
But then, that's the difference between Shelness and the rest of us. For thousands of commuters, the daily trek to work is a battle against fellow man, the elements and the vagaries of our ailing public transport system. For Shelness, vice president and chief technology officer at Lotus, the biggest challenge he faces in the morning is finding his slippers.
Although nominally based at the Lotus headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Shelness lives and telecommutes from a renovated, late 17th-century corn mill in the Strathmore region of rural Scotland. His daily ritual has been shaped by the information age - fax, phone, email and internet. And the tools he uses are the ones he helped to build.
It's about quality of life, he says, but that's only part of it: 'It's really about knowledge management. The critical resource is inside the heads of employees. It's called knowledge, and it's about what a company knows and how it uses that knowledge. Today, success is no longer linked to the traditional inputs of labour, capital, land or location.'
Knowledge management is nothing new, however. It's just another label to describe how best to help people share and utilise their skills. 'It's far more exciting and more descriptive of what we do at Lotus than groupware,' says Shelness. 'The biggest benefits come when a company maps its knowledge management policy to a key aspect of its business strategy. For most companies, that means focusing on one or more of four aspects.
'The first is about bringing people together in virtual development teams. It's about innovation, creating an environment of collaboration. The second is responsiveness - giving people access to the information they need, as and when they require it, and enabling decisions to be made more accurately and quickly.
Next comes productivity - finding ways to re-use knowledge assets to shorten cycle times and cut out duplication.
'And finally, it's about competency - raising the skillsets of all our employees through online and on-the-job training.'
But even a great knowledge management system - which is how Shelness describes Notes - is no good if no one uses it. And therein lies a problem - who is and who will be using the latest, long-awaited version of the company's flagship product, Notes R5?
Plagued by repeated delays, R5's release slipped from the end of last year to January of this year. Then it slipped again. At the developer's annual shindig, known as Lotusphere, the product failed to materialise.
Instead, Jeff Papows, chief executive of Lotus, had to bite the bullet when announcing what he promised would be a 'short additional delay'.
An apology was posted on the developer's Website a week later.
The delays were attributed to problems with the Notes client/user interface, caused mainly by the Web-enabled features in R5. 'A great deal has changed in the Notes client,' says Shelness. 'Some of it is immediately obvious to the user - for example, the screen layout and navigational components.
But some of it is much less visible, such as native rendering and editing of HTML content. There are also directory catalogues that compress large name and address books by a factor of 40. It simply took us longer than originally anticipated to get this right and robust.'
He makes no apologies for the delays, insisting there was no point in shipping a product that wasn't ready and then fixing the problems afterwards on an ad hoc basis. Unlike other software companies he doesn't care to mention, he says Lotus is in the business of helping customers and the resellers that deliver and support its products by providing a sound and stable platform on which to solve users' everyday needs. 'Getting several million new and modified lines of code written and debugged is no mean feat. There is an old ironic saying in the software industry - everything is just a small matter of code. The irony lies in the word small,' he adds.
Finally, and with some relief, the product shipped on 1 April, just a day behind its revised first-quarter release date.
Shelness admits that the R5 catalogue of postponements was a cause for concern within the vendor when it came to winning market share, both in terms of new and upgrade business. 'But our numbers indicate that the delays didn't affect take-up,' he adds.
Shelness is not forthcoming with exact numbers of R5 sales post-shipment.
However, he points to the fact that between September last year and shipping, more than 275,000 copies of the beta product were downloaded from the company's Website.
'Thousands of customers have indicated their intention to implement Notes R5, Domino R5 and Domino Designer R5 within their organisations to support critical communications, streamline business applications and increase their Web presence,' says Shelness. 'More than 34 million people worldwide rely on Notes and Domino to help them sustain or gain competitive advantage.
In addition, more than 100 business partners have developed applications for Notes R5 and Domino R5 to address key e-business areas such as customer relationship management and internet commerce.
'Our business partners are the source of most Notes-based systems, from functional areas such as sales force automation, human resources and customer service, to niche markets including banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, government and education. Many of these implementations represent the state of the art in knowledge management and Lotus is working closely with its partners to foster specific knowledge management innovations and systems.'
However, despite talking up the numbers, the fact remains that the delay will have done nothing to help Lotus wrestle mind and market share away from its competitors - Microsoft in particular. The findings of a recent survey conducted by market research firm Gartner Group warned that the late delivery of R5 could cost the vendor customers. It stated that Lotus was under competitive assault from Microsoft and had a tough challenge ahead - how to maintain the interest of its current and potential messaging customers during the idle time that resulted from delays in shipping the final product.
The Gartner report added that many corporates, which have previously given Lotus the benefit of the doubt, have adopted a wait-and-see strategy - they might as well wait until Windows 2000/Exchange 6 to see how the market pans out.
Shelness dismisses this thinking as folly. 'It could be a long wait.
Most people are getting on with solving the problems they have now. Windows 2000 is part of their future plans and ours. You need to be ready, but to stop your world while you're waiting would be silly.'
Perhaps the biggest immediate challenge for Lotus is not in slugging it out with Microsoft, but in convincing customers to implement any fresh business model in the build-up to the millennium. Many companies that have undergone or are still undergoing year 2000 compliance fixes are expected to freeze any large-scale overhaul of their infrastructures for fear of undoing the work already done. Expenditure could also be cut back as companies make allowance for an emergency slush fund to tackle millennium bug unknowns.
The pervasive fear must be that by the time the Lotus marketing drive gets into top gear, corporate spending could hit reverse. On this particular subject, Shelness is decidedly pragmatic. 'How will the year 2000 issue affect sales? No one knows,' he says. 'It is a one-off event. We have no history on which to base an opinion. Will implementations be frozen in the third and fourth quarters? Again, we just don't know.'
One thing we do know for sure is that Lotus will be shipping a version of Domino on the Linux platform. Understandably, Shelness is unwilling to give an expected shipment date. 'Now that we've shipped R5, we are in the process of determining the planned dates for our next releases,' he says.
However, Shelness may well have been partly responsible for Lotus' decision to jump on the Linux bandwagon. At last year's European Lotusphere in Berlin, Papows said Domino would not appear on Linux.
Shelness says: 'At the time, Papows stated that the world needs another Unix variant like it needs a hole in the head. If Linux was just another Unix variant, he might have been right. The point he missed is that Linux isn't just another Unix variant - it's a whole new way of writing, debugging and delivering operating system software. And as such, it is much more important than just another version of Unix.'
In retrospect, Lotus' decision to run with Linux was pretty clear-cut, but the choice of technology for the browser element of the new 'Webified' Notes interface was not quite so black and white. Shelness explains: 'We have been shipping both Navigator and Internet Explorer on the Notes CDs.
This has been the case for a long time and has nothing to do with R5.
'Notes was able to call Navigator even when we weren't shipping it on the CDs. We shipped both IE3 and Navigator 3, but when Netscape chose to ship Navigator 4 only as part of Communicator 4, we refused to ship Communicator on the Notes CD. When Netscape unbundled Navigator from Communicator, we put it back on the CD. If Microsoft had required us to ship Outlook Express or other competing products on the Notes CD, we would also have refused to include it.'
In versions prior to R5, there were several ways to process a URL when it was encountered in a Notes document. The most common was to pass the URL to an external browser - Navigator or Explorer - for retrieval and rendering. In R5, however, the URL can be passed to a native Notes application.
'In R5, the Notes editor is now able to render HTML directly. This obviates the need for other HTML rendering approaches, although the Notes editor does not support all of the extensions supported by IE,' says Shelness.
'A key feature enabled by this capability is that a Web page retrieved by Notes and rendered by either the embedded IE control or the Notes editor can be forwarded as HTML in an email message and rendered by the receiving Notes R5 client.'
However, to muddy the waters further, at Lotusphere the vendor announced a non-exclusive deal with AOL - which now owns Netscape - where the ISP would provide content to the browser window recently incorporated into the Notes client. Lotus is now indirectly allied to Netscape and Microsoft.
Users can access the internet through a navigation tool integrated into Notes, without leaving the program to surf. Shelness insists that Lotus is not attempting to move into the browser market. However, it seems that the distinction between groupware and browser technology is becoming blurred.
'Of course, we would like people to remain in the Notes client when they surf the Web,' he says. 'They can do this by choosing to employ the embedded IE control from within Notes. There is no loss of rendering functionality compared with running the IE browser as a separate application. We also want people to be able to embed HTML content in native Notes applications, including email. When they do that, it is rendered by the Notes editor rather than by the IE control. For the vast majority of HTML content, there is no difference in quality if it is displayed within Notes.'
The final issue was the decision to drop support for Novell NetWare.
The decision, says Shelness, was based purely on return on investment.
'Sales of Domino on NetWare have shrunk to a very low level. For R3, it was our second largest platform after OS/2,' he says. 'Adding R5 features to a Netware Loadable Moldule (NLM) implementation would have been extremely expensive and the cost of quality assurance on each of our platforms is high.
'We simply reached the conclusion that the costs significantly outweighed the potential revenue. We are, of course, continuing to support Domino R4.5 on the NetWare platform.'
Technology and development choices aside, Shelness claims the outlook for Lotus is extremely positive, with the vendor reporting sales of one million to 1.5 million users per month. The fact that R5 positions Lotus as a key challenger to Microsoft is not in question. But while Lotus is strong on technology, it could struggle against Microsoft's marketing muscle pound for pound.
When IBM amazed Wall Street by paying $3.5 billion for Lotus in 1995, Lotus was king of the groupware market - one which it had invented almost single-handed - and was keeping up the appearance of being a serious challenger to Microsoft in core office applications. A year later, despite slashing prices, Notes was under fire for being too expensive, proprietary and cumbersome. Microsoft was making a convincing case for Exchange as a competitor to Notes and SmartSuite was losing against Office. At the time, the industry was beginning to wonder whether Wall Street had been right and IBM had made an expensive error in purchasing Lotus. That now appears unlikely, but there's a lot riding on the back of R5.
Ultimately, only time will tell, but the clock has been ticking for some time. IBM's decision to deploy more than 330,000 seats throughout its worldwide operations during 1999 should give Lotus and R5 a kick-start.
But while the company can expect existing users to migrate to R5, the prospects for attracting extra business are less certain.
There is still time to make hay while the sun shines. The only trouble is, despite Shelness' positive outlook, the best part of the day may have long since passed.
THE ROAD TO LOTUS - VIA EDINBURGH
Nick Shelness is vice president and chief technology officer of Lotus. As chief technology officer, he has senior management responsibility for the vendor's future technology direction and serves as the conduit between its worldwide technical community and its senior management.
Prior to being appointed chief technology officer in 1998, Shelness served in a number of technical leadership roles, primarily in messaging, for which he was made a Lotus Fellow in 1996. This involved work on the development of internet protocols (he is a co-author of the IETF's MHTML standard) and the support of internet protocols in Notes and Domino.
Before its acquisition by Lotus in 1994, Nick spent nine years at Soft-Switch, where he served in a number of technical and management roles.
These included the founding of Soft-Switch's UK organisation in 1984; technical and managerial responsibility for Soft-Switch's document translation, Lan gateway and mid-range gateway products from 1986 to 1990; and architectural responsibility for EMX (now the Lotus Messaging Switch) from its creation in 1990 to 1995. In 1993, he was made chief scientist at Soft-Switch.
He spent the 1970s as a tenured member of faculty of the department of computer science of the University of Edinburgh. There, he conducted published research into multi-level storage hierarchies, communications subsystems for large virtual memory time-sharing systems, and distributed operating systems for early Lan (3Mbit) multi-computer co-operative processing environments.
THE WRONG TROUSERS
NICK SHELNESS, vice president and chief technology officer at Lotus
What was your first job?
It was post-university - as systems programmer in the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre.
If you had one wish what would it be?
I don't really have one. I'm happy with my life as it is.
What is your greatest interest?
What's your favourite holiday destination?
Northern Italy (Milan-Verona-Padua-Venice) in June. The weather, the food, the air, the smells ... I know of nowhere else that has the same impact on one's senses.
What's your most embarrassing moment?
I was 10 years old and had taken to doing without pants. I was riding a horse in an exercise ring when my trousers split. The female instructor kept me riding round and round.
What's the most important bit of advice you have ever received?
The best advice came from my father when I left for university. He said: 'Be kind.'
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