Why IBM Should Open Source Notes and Domino

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 29, 2008

The Register has an item up that caught my eye regarding a letter to IBM's software group, suggesting that it would be a good move for Big Blue to open source the Lotus Notes/Domino e-mail, calendaring and collaboration suite. The letter is from Ian Tree, the chief architect at IT consultancy Hadleigh Marshall Netherlands b.v. of Eindhoven, The Netherlands. It argues that IBM's software group and the software market as a whole would be better off with an open source Notes/Domino offering. Here is why this makes a lot of sense.

I've been covering technology long enough to remember the demise of Lotus. In the late 1980s, Lotus' market capitalization was larger than Microsoft's, and the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet commanded more than 80 percent of the spreadsheet market. Lotus Notes soon followed, and was a clear leader among the many enterprise e-mail and groupware solutions that started to crop up as local-area networks swept across big businesses. I used Notes for years, and, in its heyday, it was one of the best solutions for traveling workers who wanted robust and dependable e-mail and meeting making features.

The crumbling of Lotus reminds me of this famous Hemingway quote: "How did you go bankrupt?"..."Two ways, gradually and then suddenly." The first two shoes that dropped were Microsoft's intense focus on the Excel spreadsheet and the success of the Windows platform starting with version 3.0. Lotus' hegemony in the spreadsheet market started to topple and then it delivered a disastrous version of 1-2-3 for Windows. Notes started to emerge as the company's only hope, but it was quickly undermined by Microsoft Outlook, riding along on the Windows wave. Eventually, IBM bought Lotus for about a billion dollars--far, far below what it was once worth. Since then, Notes and Domino have gone nearly nowhere.

Ian Tree's letter to IBM says this:

"I propose that changing the development and publishing model for the Notes/Domino product line to an open source, community development model will provide the necessary paradigm shift to transform the Domino market. Further, I believe that such a bold move in taking a core product open source will have a much wider impact on the software market in general and would certainly force many competitors into defensive positions."

I agree with this, and IBM would have been smart to do this years ago. The Microsoft Outlook and Exchange platform is extremely kludgey and IBM could leverage enormously good public relations by open sourcing and freeing up a sophisticated enterprise alternative. As it stands, Notes and Domino are tiny footnotes in the company's overall strategy.

There are also a number of business models that IBM could leverage surrounding an open source Notes/Domino solution. For example, Big Blue could take a Red Hat-style stance and charge for support, while the underlying software is free. I have no doubt that Notes and Domino would gain significant market share with this kind of model, and IBM would get a growing revenue stream from fee-based support.

Is Microsoft too dominant for this kind of idea to work? No way. Look at Gmail. It's only a few years old, but it crushed Microsoft Hotmail's ownership of the free, web-based e-mail space through simple extras such as offering more storage capacity. Ian Tree's letter will probably fall on deaf ears at a company like IBM, but there is core quality in the Notes/Domino stack, doomed to go nowhere unless Big Blue takes risks.