multi-colored dominos sitting upright
PHOTO: Marco Lermer

IBM's agreement to sell (Lotus) Notes and Domino as well as Sametime and Connections to global tech firm HCL was announced last December. The deal is still going through the regulatory processes in order to be finalized. So while details on the long- and medium-term development of IBM Connections are currently limited, we know far more details about what will happen with Notes and Domino, since the plans were — to a large extent — already published before the announcement of the planned takeover. And the worldwide launch of Domino version 10, which took place before the announced acquisition, points the way to this future.

The Secret About Domino

Domino-based applications still play an important and at times mission critical role in many companies. Even though in many cases those companies replaced the Notes email client with Outlook, the Domino apps remained. Though sales pitches suggested businesses “just replace Notes apps with SharePoint,” companies soon discovered the high cost and complexity of making such a switch, if it was even possible. 

So Domino applications are still running in the back offices that support the business. Their existence is often kept a secret, because many of these companies now pay software licenses to Microsoft and IBM instead of replacing Domino.

Which brings us back to a traditional strength and a myth around Notes and Domino: The ability to develop an app within hours of conception. Business owners would have a quick talk with IT over lunch or at the watercooler about a business challenge they had and Notes developers would design and roll out a solution in short time. To be honest, sometimes these apps were awful, but tons of applications did exactly what the business owners wanted them to do.

Those applications developed on earlier releases of Notes and Domino are in many cases still running with minor changes to the code over 10 years later. The Domino platform made it possible to implement solutions quickly and comparatively inexpensively, solutions that would have required significantly more effort in other environments for similar results. Often these solutions are — forgive the almost old-fashioned term — workflow applications.

Related Article: Why Did IBM Sell Lotus and Other Software Products to HCL? 

Domino's Rebirth

For some years IBM appeared to have forgotten and neglected this strength of the Domino platform. Yet in the past year, HCL (and IBM) rediscovered this potential and focused on modernizing and expanding the possibilities of Notes and Domino in rapid application development. 

Version 10 of Domino was the first significant demonstration of this rebirth. As an example, the IBM Domino App Dev Pack connects to the world of JavaScript and Node.js, allowing both JavaScript and Domino developers to readily enhance, integrate and build new applications using Domino data. Developers now can call any REST API into Domino applications — bringing in Google maps, pulling in a Watson API, or even using customer data from Salesforce. Domino v10 now supports CentOS, which can be used to create Docker Domino containers that are 100% compatible with Red Hat Linux.

The upcoming version 11 promises to make Domino even stronger as a low code or even no code environment. The continuous support of JavaScript for future-proof Domino applications is only one sign of this change. In Domino v11, HCL plans to further develop its JavaScript programming model. Other important enhancements include the possibility to run Domino applications on Android or iOS devices, which opens up use cases that leverage the still unique replication features of the platform, allowing developers to work with data without being connected to the network.

IBM and in turn HCL have committed to detach themselves from the heavyweight Eclipse framework. As mentioned, we've already seen the first prototypes of the Notes App that run on iPad, iPhone and Android. A "lightweight" client is in the making. Meanwhile, Notes applications can also run in the browser due to streamlining. All this has the goal of freeing Domino and Notes from the nimbus of outdated software and pointing the way to a modern future. "Domino was the first no-SQL database and it is better than ever today," HCL vice president and general manager, collaborative workflow patterns Richard Jefts is quoted as saying.

Related Article: How to Protect Workflows When They Cross Enterprise Boundaries

Next Steps for HCL and Domino

The moves mark a return to Notes and Domino's roots: a tool which allows for fast application developments from and for business owners, while also providing the ability to modernize existing legacy applications efficiently. 

For Domino to continue in the market, the goal now needs to be to win over new customers with the argument that Domino applications can be developed faster and more economically. Analyst firm Forrester worked with IBM to create a profitability study, "The Total Economic Impact of IBM Domino" (pdf), which shared impressive figures in relation to the licensing costs, resources needed and necessary infrastructure to use the software.

Beyond Domino, Jefts wants to bring the future development of solutions like Domino, Sametime, Portal, Connections and Commerce under one umbrella to create deeper integrations between the individual products. Rumors are also circling that HCL wants the Domino database to become the backend for all products. This is certainly a medium-term vision as it is not as easy to replace the backend of IBM Connections or Portal.

For Notes and Domino, IBM and HCL have issued clear statements about the further development up to version 11. This was possible because HCL and IBM had agreed upon corresponding plans before the announced takeover. For other products, such as IBM Connections, customers and interested parties will have to wait until the antitrust authorities approve the deal and the subsequent completion of the takeover. This should happen in the not too distant future.

So, what does the future hold for Notes, Domino and the other products? Very hard to say. The response and feedback from users and user associations has so far been very positive. They recognize a mid-term strategy and appreciate the refocus on the traditional strengths of the products. But beyond developing, modernizing and extending the products, HCL has to succeed in another area, too: It has no time to lose to start aggressively marketing the solutions in the key markets to keep current customers and win new ones. For a company traditionally doing services business, this might be a new challenge.