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Whatever Happened to … Lotus Notes

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Let’s not beat around the bush — mention “Lotus Notes” to people, and many will have a reaction ranging from “Is that still around?” to “Ugh.” Notes has, perhaps unfairly so, a reputation for corporate stodginess that is the technology equivalent of 1980s music videos.

For Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes, longevity is both a blessing and a curse. To grow its base, Notes must move away from its legacy rep. Its aim: to replace corporate stodginess and become a hipper, full-fledged server-based application platform.

To be fair, Notes’ roots reach all the way back to the early 1970s. And for those of us also from way back in the early 70s, let’s face it — we’re not the cool kids anymore. But we are still here, and maybe we know a thing or two the young upstarts have yet to learn.

If we start at the beginning, Notes’ earliest ancestor was an online message board called PLATO Notes, born at the very dawn of computer networking, a time more commonly known as 1973. PLATO was an early-generation computer system designed for educational use at the University of Illinois. Although Lotus Notes is today seen as the epitome of a corporate product, its beginnings were actually in academia.

The Early Years

Not until the mid-1990s did the Internet achieve enough penetration for its underlying messaging protocols, like POP and IMAP, to become global standards. Before then, network messaging software did exist, but it typically relied on vendor-designed protocols for exchanging information.

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Lotus Notes, with its original version 1 commercial release in 1989, was just such a product, allowing users to exchange messages from either Microsoft DOS or IBM OS/2 systems using a graphical interface. At this time, the need for a sophisticated (for the time) platform for exchanging messages and managing discussions had spread beyond the world of mainframes to personal computers.

From its first release, Notes supported group messaging, discussion and contact management (called a “Phone Book” at the time). It even included encryption and message authentication as well as hyperlinks (called “DocLinks”) between messages.

Beyond its particular feature set, though, the software architecture behind Notes involved three foundational models that continue to shape the product to this day.

  • Data replication: As an early entrant into enterprise messaging, Notes had to contend with very slow networks. To improve both efficiency and data integrity, Notes stores copies of data records on both server and client, and distributes updates as incremental changes. Replication is bidirectional, so rather than merely “push” or “pull” data between client and server, both ends deliver updates to one another.
  • Flexible storage contains: All data, whether e-mail, discussion comments, annotations, calendar entries and so on, are stored in a document-oriented database known as NSF — the Notes Storage Facility. Individual records themselves are called “notes,” and compared to a traditional and rigid relational database, notes fields can contain a more varied set of values.
  • Development-oriented: The flexibility of the NSF database is a key component of Notes’ designers original vision for making Notes a development platform rather than merely a task-specific set of tools. The intention in planning Notes was that enterprise developers would use the platform to build the tools their organization needed. The clients included with Notes, like e-mail, were simply seen as “pre-built” components that were included with the framework.

Through 1996, the first four versions of Lotus Notes were aimed at improving the product’s scalability — its primary customers were large enterprises — and usability, particularly as desktop graphics operating systems themselves evolved. Improving both also meant support for cross-platform installations, from DOS to OS/2 and, ultimately, Windows 3.0.

Enter the Internet

In 1995, IBM purchased Lotus, and with that came new ideas for Notes. The Internet, in particular, was a growing threat to Notes for several reasons. First, software built on Internet standard protocols was better able to interoperate across vendors, which appeals to buyers now wary of falling prey to “vendor lock.” Second, by using existing standards and freely available software foundations, competing vendors could create and release messaging systems with a faster development cycle than Notes. Third, the Web was becoming a major technology for distributing content across platforms and products. Essentially, the Internet was bringing about an end to “walled garden” software.

Version 4.5 of Lotus Notes renamed the server component of the platform to “Domino,” retaining the name Notes for the client. Domino represented a shift from a Lotus messaging server to an outward-facing Web application server. It supported the ever-popular open standards of the Web, like HTTP and Java, and Internet e-mail, (including SMTP, MIME and POP3), while still supporting the long legacy of Notes messaging and support for development.

With Version 5, Lotus continued to push Notes into the Web-era, revamping the interface to behave more like a Web environment, and expanding support for Internet protocols.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Notes continued to evolve along with the Web. A Webmail client interface appeared, originally called iNotes Web Access, which quickly changed to Domino Web Access. Version 6.5 also introduced instant messaging, called “Lotus SameTime.”

By 2006, Notes had been bulked up with support for IBM’s DB2 database, blogs, rss, iCal calendars, client support for Linux (in addition to Windows and Mac), and even a portable thumb-drive client.

The Legacy Problem

Although Notes has continued to add support for modern messaging technologies, it faces headwinds from several directions. Building on a product with such a long history can be a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is that deep institutional knowledge helps leverage Notes’ fundamental architectural advantages. Not only do Lotus and IBM own a great deal of intellectual property that drives Notes, but large clients have mature programs in place for using Notes in their workplaces, including employee training and support. In other words, inertia is a blessing.

The curse of legacy is especially tricky in the fast-moving world of computers. By far, the most common criticism of Notes users — and the motivation behind the all-too-often “ugh” — is its interface. Built on metaphors and principles that stretch back to Notes’ origins, it is a difficult balancing act for Notes to continue to support existing institutional knowledge while also meeting the expectations and user interface habits of today’s users.

In fact, some of Notes’ original design decisions are the very same that today can rub users the wrong way. Because Notes is cross-platform, its interface isn’t quite like that of Windows-native software. The reality, though, is that most users — particularly in corporate environments — are using Windows machines, which makes learning the Notes interface an exception to their normal experience.

Although Notes was built to support a flexible development platform, the other reality is that most of its users spend the vast majority of their time in its e-mail client. For them, Notes is essentially an e-mail program. Consequently, for many client users, Notes is a Windows e-mail program, and in this capacity, some vocally prefer — or are simply more accustomed to — Microsoft Outlook.

Notes’ supporters will argue, accurately, that Microsoft Outlook and its server counterpart, Exchange, are not fully fledged development platforms for custom messaging solutions. The Notes client arguably has more advanced features than Outlook, although this can lead precisely to the usability issues Notes’ critics cite.

Besides, both Outlook users and Domino administrators can find common ground, with IBM’s Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook — a bridge that binds the Outlook client’s groupware features to a Domino server.

An Open Future

Rather than battle entrenched Microsoft Exchange deployments head-on, with its latest Version 8, Notes is instead embracing openness.

Although Notes represents only the client portion of the Lotus messaging platform, it is now built using the open source Java-based Eclipse framework. This means that not only can the Notes client run Eclipse-based plug-ins, but also that Eclipse developers can essentially customize the Notes client from the ground up.

Meanwhile, the open source Notes client supports all proprietary features in its Domino server counterpart, providing further incentive for developers to look at the Lotus platform.

With new Domino-based support for productivity features like word processing and spreadsheets using major document formats, it is clear Lotus is aiming to refresh Notes from its “stodgy e-mail” image and into a full-fledged server-based application platform.

The challenge, as it always has been for Notes, will be how to add substance without adding bulk.

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