The Web in the Gray Flannel Suit
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
September 1995

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




Lotus Notes may be the most mysterious software ever written.

Nobody, not even Lotus' marketing department, has been able to come up with a 25-words-or-less sound-byte that accurately describes what it does. (While roaming through Lotus press releases, you're most likely to run into words like "empowerment" and "enabling," making Notes sound like it may have been coded by either Robert Fulghum or Yanni.)

Let me take a whack at it: Notes is a multi-user distribution and display system for text and graphics. (See what I mean? The English have a similar difficulty explaining Marmite.)

Whatever it is, Notes is not cheap. Prices start at $407 per user for the designer version and do not expect to hear the wind rush as you descend their price list's sliding-scale. And now IBM has offered to buy Lotus for 3.5 billion dollars. I figure that's just about what IBM, with its 250,000+ employees worldwide, would probably have had to pay for a site license for Notes. This way, they get a great view of the Charles River to boot.

I once met with a conference-room full of senior Lotus executives who were pitching Notes to me. An engineer was drawing a schematic of the software's architecture on a white board. I leaned over to one of the executives and whispered, "So what's the magic? It moves files from point A to point B and then lets users click on them. Unless I'm missing something, this architecture seems really simple to me." The executive winked and whispered, "Yes, but nobody had ever thought of it before."

They have now.

If the concept of a "multi-user distribution and display system for text and graphics" which "moves files from point A to point B and then lets users click on them" sounds vaguely familiar to you, it's because that also happens to be a reasonably accurate description of the World Wide Web.

For years, Lotus Notes has had the groupware dance floor all to itself. Corporations have been rushing forward to embrace it to the tune of 760,000 copies in 1994 alone. But now many businesses are discovering that the World Wide Web may actually be a versatile, inexpensive transposition of Notes.

"There are basically two types of corporate information infrastructures - `low-tech' and `high-tech'," says Morgan Stanley's VP of Information Technology, Mark Donner, a vocal advocate for the pin-stripe web. "The low-tech organization is thrilled to have a fax machine and can't install anything more complicated than a light bulb. Notes is perfect for them," he says, trying to sound complimentary. "In contrast, the high-tech organization has a strong systems backbone already in place. The web is a better fit to a powerful infrastructure; Notes is a better fit to a weaker one."

Morgan Stanley uses the web to publish its "morning packet," a formerly inch-thick ream of time-sensitive pricing sheets containing huge tables of data on government bonds. Once distributed daily by courier to their worldwide offices, Donner estimates Morgan Stanley saves a million dollars a year by putting the packet on the web. "And Tokyo gets their information 18 hours earlier," he adds.

NASA's Langley Research Center uses the web to publish everything from day care information to room locaters for their 100+ building campus. All internal forms are now at Langley are now on the server. (Hey, we're talking about the government here. These people know how to generate forms.) What's missing from the web are a lot of simple, basic tools which will help users and IT managers develop pages which smartly absorb the contents from databases, spreadsheets, word-processors and the other citizens of the corporate information community.

Yes, I know, you're all clever enough to have figured out how to write a home page, but you are not as technically challenged as your average corporate employee. 95% of people who wear suits think pushing the elevator button a second time makes it come faster. Most have not even mastered the spreadsheet beyond the basics of cut, paste and print. So despite HTML's simple syntax, we're still going to have to develop almost juvenile tools which let these users participate in the web, since they're the ones with the information everybody else in the corporation needs to know.

(In a crafty case of "If you can't lick `em, manage `em, Lotus has released InterNotes, a conversion package which lets you generate web pages from Notes content. At $6,589.00, it will be my first suggestion when the Sultan of Brunei calls me looking for an HTML editor.)

The web lets corporations reach out to the world. It may prove just as valuable when the destination is no further than down the hall.