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Lotus brews potent Java with Kona

By Richard Morochove

First published February 6, 1997

ORLANDO, Florida -- The sunshine of central Florida is a long way from the Massachusetts headquarters of Lotus Development, but would 10,000 Lotus users and resellers visit chilly Boston in January?

The fourth annual Lotuspbere, a trade show and conference dedicated to Lotus software and compatible add-ons, was held last week at the Walt Disney World resort, just outside Orlando. Despite the nearby presence of the Disney gang, the conference was no Mickey Mouse affair.

Highlights included the unveiling of a potent brew of Java applets code-named Kona, more details on the soon-to-be-shipping SmartSuite 97 and information about the future direction of Notes, the groupware application for businesses.

One overriding theme - Lotus has taken the Internet to heart and is upgrading all its software to make it as Net-friendly as possible.

"We're really serious about this stuff," said Lotus VP Mike Zisman, at a Java strategy briefing. Lotus appears fully committed to what's become the standard programming language of the Internet with some 300 Java program developers on board along with hundreds more at parent company IBM.

In many ways, the Java-based Kona, demonstrated for the first time at the conference, resembles a cut-down version of Lotus SmartSuite. This is the company's flagship group of applications that includes programs such as the 1-2-3 spreadsheet and WordPro word processor. However, instead of whittling down SmartSuite, Lotus built Kona from the ground up.

Kona Personal Information Manager tracks meetings, project progress and to-dos.

Only the top dozen or so most-used features in each SmartSuite application are included in each Kona applet. An applet isn't just a small application that can fit comfortably on a floppy diskette. Unlike applications, applets do not have menus. All program functions are accessed through action buttons.

Kona applets include a word processor, spreadsheet, charting, drawing, e-mail and an organizer with calendar and to-do capabilities. The result is a Works-type program for the Internet or Network Computer (NC) that is useful yet surprisingly small.

All Kona applets combined require less than 200K of Java software code. This means it takes just a few seconds for each applet to download from a network server. This simplifies procedures for software upgrades, since a new version need only be installed on the server, not on the PC or NC that's actually running the applet.

Kona's user interface will be customized. For NCs used as PC replacements, a colorful environment similar to Windows is planned. For NCs replacing mainframe 3270 terminals, a more straightlaced text-oriented interface is in the works.

Since Kona is written in the Java language from Sun Microsystems, it will run on any Java-enabled computing device. All NCs will run Java, but you'll also be able to run it on a PC using a Java-aware Web browser such as Netscape Navigator or directly from a Java-enabled operating system. IBM's OS/2, Apple's MacOS, and MS Windows 3.1 and NT all support Java now or will be upgraded to do so in the near future.

Will people want Kona? That's the big unanswered question. Its simplified approach won't appeal to the power user who wants more capabilities with each new software version. But I think there's a friendly niche for Kona in the hands of those new to computing.

You'll be able to download test versions of some Kona applets from the Lotus Web site starting March 1. Final versions will be available this summer.

While IBM has already agreed to bundle Kona with every Network Station it ships, the marketing plans of Lotus for other markets appear rather vague and ill-defined.

Kona applets may or may not be sold to directly to users for about $10 each. Lotus may or may not also license the software so it can be downloaded from Internet servers on a pay-per-use basis.

The company also announced Lotus Mail, an upgraded version of cc:Mail designed to appeal to users of Internet mail programs such as Eudora Pro. It will be available next month for less than $50.

Behind closed doors, I received a private viewing of Lotus SmartSuite 97. While SmartSuite looks very slick and is a credible alternative to the recently-released MS Office 97, I believe it offers only a few advantages over the Microsoft suite, such as close integration with Lotus Notes. I can't see Lotus convincing many MS Office users to switch.

According to Christopher Joblon, Lotus Enterprise Program Manager, the final software code of SmartSuite 97 has been released to manufacturing and should be available later in February.

Lotus is already working on SmartSuite 98. It will feature more support for Java applets and a new interface that's compatible with the Internet Explorer Webtop planned for MS Windows 97. CW