BONUS: Competing with Lotus Notes

In enterprise software the best product doesn’t always win, but the winning product becomes the best product. –An old saying of unknown origin

Welcome to a special subscriber-only bonus post in Hardcore Software building on the previous section on the development of Outlook.

There are many stories that are so deep and cross so many parts of Microsoft that it would not be fair to tell them as part of my personal story of the PC era. I was a participant in competing with Lotus Notes, first as BillG’s technical assistant and then helping with the first Outlook and managing subsequent releases. Competing with Notes was the job of the Exchange email team (called Workgroup Applications at the time). With that in mind, I wanted to offer my personal perspective on the competition.

This story contains lessons in here about competition, technology, and how winning can work in enterprise software even against a brilliant competitor with all of the resources of the largest tech company on the planet.

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In late May 1994 at the Spring COMDEX/Windows World exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia, Bill Gates announced winners of the Windows Pioneers award. The award was recognition of a group of developers and entrepreneurs that made significant and long-lasting bets on Windows, from the earliest days. It was a fun event and when I think about it was fascinating to think we were looking back and yet Windows still felt so new and early. It was the peak of the “beginning” of the PC era, just before the internet reshaped everything. The honorees included:

  1. Alan Cooper, creator of the visual forms package (aka “Ruby”) that was combined with the Basic programming language and became Visual Basic, which defined the client-server era of development and earned Alan the moniker “Father of Visual Basic”.

  2. Lyle Griffin, creator of Micrografx In*a*Vision, later Designer one of the first commercial Windows applications and one of the earliest vector graphics design tools.

  3. Joe Guthridge, leader of the development of Samna Amí, the first Windows-based word processor which was later acquired by Lotus and formed a key part of Lotus SmartSuite.

  4. Ted Johnson, leader of the development of PageMaker the defining tool for desktop publishing and one of the first full-scale products to use a mouse on Windows. He later co-founded Visio Corporation, inventors of the category of structured drawing and modeling software (later acquired by Microsoft).

  5. Ian Koenig, leader on the development of the Reuters Terminal financial information software, one of the earliest commercial Windows products built to be resold as part of an information service. Reuters would continue to invest heavily in the Microsoft platform for decades.

  6. Charles Petzold, author of Programming Windows series of books that literally taught the world how to use and navigate the Windows API from the earliest days of just a couple of hundred APIs to editions of the book scaling to thousands of APIs. He also authored numerous other books including a wonderful book on, The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine.

  7. Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes (as the independent Iris Associates), which later joined IBM in 1995 when Lotus was acquired. Ray would join Microsoft in 2005 through the acquisition of his next creation, Groove, and then became Microsoft’s second Chief Software Architect and key force behind Microsoft’s entry into software as a service/cloud computing and the creation of Azure. During his time at Lotus and working on Notes, Ray worked with many different parts of Microsoft often at the earliest stages in product development including OLE, Cairo, Office, SharePoint, and of course Windows.

Together this group represented the very best of independent software vendors and power that could be achieved making a bet on the Windows platform. There were so many innovative products around Windows it seemed difficult to pick just these seven, but there is no doubt of the remarkable legacy of these pioneers, and some good friends too!

When it comes to collaborating with Microsoft and also competing, few achieved more and also contributed so much to making everyone better than Ray Ozzie.

The competition with Lotus Notes came to define the company more than anything.

While most would probably name Apple as the biggest competitor Microsoft faced, the reality of the mutually beneficial relationship was so crucial to Microsoft’s early days I don’t think that is the best answer. Some of the earliest generation of Microsoft would definitely name Novell, pioneers in PC networking, but the rise of the general purpose operating system, Windows NT and also Unix in the enterprise, was simply too much for the company.

My view is the competition with Lotus Notes came to define the company more than anything, not only in how it succeeded against Notes but also how it ultimately failed to fully capture the scenarios and implementation of Notes.

Notes is rooted in Ray Ozzie’s personal experience, especially his days at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, working on a pioneering system called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). PLATO was one of the first or the first systems to incorporate many of the common tools we think of today in the collaboration space: forums, message boards, newsgroups, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer. Beyond these capabilities PLATO also developed an array of lower-level innovations in hardware and platform software including plasma displays, touchscreens, audio recording/storage/playback, and music synthesis. Suffice it to say, anyone working on such a system would have been influenced by the breadth of innovation as well as the primitive state of collaboration on other computer systems.

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