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Fred Chokes on Cheerios

Wednesday, March 8, 1995 by Dave Winer.

Well folks, I just got back from Esther's. It's rainy in California.

I haven't even begun to digest what happened at the show.

When I got home, there was an email waiting from Fred Davis, 305-7504@mcimail.com.

It's definitely DaveNet material.

Very quotable stuff.

It's a cc of a letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal.

Here's what Fred Davis said...


March 8, 1995

Dear Editor:

I almost choked on my Cheerios when reading your front page story on Lotus Notes and an op-ed piece written by Lotus CEO Jim Manzi in your March 7 edition. Its been a while since I've seen such an overtly biased journalistic one-two punch delivered in your pages. In the guise of a report about Lotus, you seem to be participating in a gleeful round of Microsoft-bashing without the taking the time to check your facts or present a balanced front-page story.

First, the story by John Wilke, "Lotus's Position," is a one-sided puff piece, which seems to be written more to boost Lotus's stock than to reveal the true nature of its key product, Notes. Wilke ballyhoos Notes as a wondrous product, peppered with glowing quotes from enthusiastic customers.

If Wilke had done his research -- or maybe just had an open mind rather than pursuing his own agenda -- he would have found many customers who are very unhappy with Notes and many potential customers who rejected it altogether. He might also have discovered what Notes actually is -- something not revealed in the article -- and that it already faces substantial competition.

To put it simply, Notes is a combination of e-mail and database software; unfortunately for Lotus, it's lousy e-mail and a bad database.

The idea behind Notes is indeed powerful. By combining e-mail and a database, an organization can integrate communications and information management. But Notes is a poor implementation of this concept that suffers from everything from weak technical underpinnings, sluggish performance, recurring bugs and crashes, and an awkward user interface. I know this from painful personal experience because my company made the unfortunate move to Notes some time ago subjecting its employees to technical problems that often put us out of touch rather than keeping us in touch.

Competitors to Notes aren't months away, as Wilke suggests. Instead, they are already here -- albeit without as much marketing hype.

The World Wide Web is a better example of integrating e-mail with a database and, unlike Notes, is an industry-standard platform open to all. Online services are also able to provide integration of e-mail and database software -- the Interchange online network, recently acquired by AT&T, seems especially well-suited as an alternative to Notes. Wilke's article certainly seemed more like an ad for Notes than a front-page WSJ story.

The sucker punch was completed by Lotus CEO Jim Manzi's self-serving diatribe, "Where Do We Really Want to Go?" Methinks the Manzi doth protest too much. I suspect Manzi's Microsoft-bashing is merely a pathetic attempt to distract Lotus stockholders from the terrible job he has done of running the company. When Manzi took the helm at Lotus, it had almost twice the annual revenues of Microsoft. Now he is whining to the Justice Department that the big bad Microsoft hurt his company unfairly. Having served as either founder or director of three of the computer industry's leading product testing labs (PC Magazine Labs, PC Week Labs, MacUser Labs), I've spent much of the past ten years evaluating software products. Lotus's fortunes have been hurt far more by the company's own poor product quality -- not just Notes but also 1-2-3 and Ami -- than by any unfair action of Microsoft's. Sure, Microsoft hurt Lotus -- but they did so fair and square by producing better products and doing a better job at marketing them.

The popular idea that the success of Microsoft's applications is linked to its ownership of the Windows operating system can easily be disproved. Just look at the Macintosh market. Apple Computer produces the Macintosh operating system and also develops Macintosh applications through its software subsidiary Claris.

If having an inside track on the operating system gives you the edge in creating applications, it would stand that Claris would be the leading application vendor in the Macintosh market. Surprise, surprise. It's not Claris, but Microsoft that holds a commanding lead in Macintosh application sales -- in fact, it has greater market share on the Macintosh than on Windows. With the legal contention between Apple and Microsoft, it's obvious than Microsoft gets no inside track on the Macintosh operating system yet its applications dominate that market. Maybe they are just good at developing and selling applications regardless of the operating system.

What I find most distasteful about Manzi's moaning is not his faulty logic but his assertion that Microsoft has forced itself into its position of prominence. Bill Gates did not take over the computer industry in a military coup. Instead, he and his company were elected to their position of dominance by the personal computer industry itself, which continually voted to back Microsoft's operating systems over its competitors. Ironically, Lotus is one of the companies that did the most to help Windows get to its position of dominance by withholding support for competitive platforms, such as the Macintosh. Actually, Microsoft has done much to foster competition by supporting the Macintosh with its leading applications at a time when other Windows developers such as Lotus refused to do so.

Customers don't buy operating systems to look at pretty icons -- they get them merely as a stepping stone to the applications that run on that operating system. PC software companies -- by overwhelmingly favoring Windows development at the expense of alternative platforms such as Macintosh, NeXT, and Unix -- are leading their customers to Windows and creating a monolithic standard that does indeed have troubling implications in suppressing competition and quality. So next time Lotus and similar companies vote with their development and marketing budgets on what platforms to support, they should pay much closer attention to where "they" really want to go.

Frederic E. Davis

PS: Fred is a longtime Ziffer, and columnist for Windows Sources, Computer Life, PC WEEK and former editor in chief of MacUser.

PPS: When we talked a few minutes ago, Fred pointed out that the timing of the Journal piece was inevitably linked to Esther's conference. But the timing backfired. To the little extent people talked about Manzi, it was mostly to wonder when is he going to get off the Microsoft thing, and focus on what Lotus is doing.

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."