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What's Next From Lotus?

Rnext, the upcoming version of Notes, is all about polish. It boasts better enterprise integration, sophisticated Java support, and greater consistency among desktop, mobile, and Web clients. Do the improvements make it right for your company?

Two major trends driving IT decision-making are the need to address increasing user mobility and the need to provide richer integration between business applications, both internally and between partners. Lotus Development Corp.'s upcoming version of its platform for Notes, Domino, and Designer, code-named Rnext and now in beta 2 release, builds upon Release 5's solid foundation to address these business imperatives.

Lotus continues to embrace the Web and remote users, offering improved parity among the conventional Notes desktop, the iNotes browser client, and MobileNotes client. But client usability and feature improvements are just the beginning. Rnext features improvements in system deployment, replication, and administration. It reaches out more effectively to interact with third-party business applications.

This is proving to be a boon for early users at Beckman & Hirsch, a Burlington, Iowa, law firm. "Because user configuration and preferences are located on the server, our employees have the ability to move from computer to computer more easily, without the setup overhead previously required," says David Beckman, a senior partner.

Lotus has also worked to accommodate and expand Domino's accessibility to more developers and different developer work styles. Native XML support in Rnext provides better Java integration with IBM's WebSphere application server. Enhancements to the Web tools increase management capabilities for administrators who want to use a browser interface. There's also enhanced integration with IBM's Tivoli enterprise-management suite.

This time, Lotus chose an open beta program that lets an unprecedented number of customers test the maturing product and provide feedback to Lotus' development team. There's one more beta release scheduled for next month; the final product is expected to ship the first quarter of next year.

Rnext builds on a solid Release 5 foundation, which provided greatly improved Web interactivity and tighter integration with external enterprise data sources through Lotus Domino Connectors. As a recap, Release 5 included support for the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, Internet Mail Access Protocol, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, Network News Transport Protocol, Post Office Protocol, and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.

With the release of Rnext, Lotus continues its commitment to make the Domino platform work smoothly with data and application functionality that resides outside the Notes/Domino framework and mixes in a healthy dose of Web application awareness. Rnext Domino Designer support for native XML classes, Java Server Pages, cascading style sheets, and layered pages makes it much easier to integrate data from relational database and business applications.

Beckman was impressed by Rnext's increased openness in dealing with other programs. The firm has extranets with several of its clients that allow them to review the current status of cases. Rnext will make the process of merging data easier.

New scripting access to HTTP header data and URL query string contents lets Web pages be built dynamically. There has been a complete rewrite of the Formula Language interpreter, which interprets @functions and @commands.

There's also a strong commitment to making sure that Web-based administration for Domino has a high degree of parity with the Win32 administration. Rnext Notes administrators will be able to do things such as create and register users and issue digital certificates through the Web-based interface. For example, Linux administrators will be able do nearly everything over the Web.

Another way Lotus has moved to be more open is through the certificate model used for public key infrastructure. With Rnext, users will be able to have one PKI, whether the client is a Web client or a fat client, to access Notes data or applications. At present, you have to use one PKI model if you're in the Notes client environment and another if you're on the Web.

Beta 2 of Rnext also has support for using third-party certificate authorities as a trusted source for security in a Domino environment.

The most obvious improvements in beta 2 are in the client and Web-server components. In the client, Lotus has introduced a toolbar metaphor that replaces aging smart icons. The toolbars are programmable and context-sensitive. Sets of shortcut buttons can be modified for a particular application.

There have also been improvements in the core mail template. For example, when a message is selected for deletion, it's actually removed from the view that the user is in and moved directly into the trash folder. In the past, messages to be deleted were flagged with a delete icon but remained in place.

Lotus segmented its standard Notes client, INotes Web client, and Mobile Notes for PDAs and cell phones in the Release 5 version. With Rnext, there's greater parity among the different clients, although Macintosh and PC users will still derive the greatest feature set from the full-blown Notes client.

INotes is clearly the right choice for Linux or OS/2 clients, because Lotus will never build a full-featured thick client for those platforms. However, with Rnext, Lotus continues to push a full client for users of Macintosh and 32-bit Windows systems.

There also have been significant performance improvements to the Macintosh client, though Ed Brill, director of worldwide product marketing for Notes, admits that there's still more Mac work to do in future betas. The Macintosh client traditionally has been a bit of a problem for Lotus. Adobe Type Manager compatibility issues were addressed only in later versions of Release 5.

Many Rnext server-side improvements are focused on the Web engine. Lotus has implemented a new HTTP server stack and servlet engine for Windows servers. Eventually, this will be available for all server platforms supported. The new Web server is faster and more resilient to denial-of-service attacks. It also supports the JavaServer Page 1.1 engine. Updated custom-tag libraries provide quick access to Domino databases and objects, so it's no longer necessary to write low-level Java code.

The last notable piece in the server stack is support for the Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning protocol. WebDAV is a set of extensions to the HTTP protocol that lets users collaboratively edit and manage files on remote Web servers. This will improve links to systems such as Microsoft's FrontPage, Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver, and some of the other Web-design tools that are WebDAV-compatible.

Data from these tools can be used to populate a Domino database. WebDAV 1.0 has already been implemented in pieces of Microsoft Office 2000 and Office XP, as well as many of the standard Web-design tools.

From an application development standpoint, Domino Designer supports a new functionality called virtual views that lets developers create fields in a Domino application that point to external databases. This means Domino application data doesn't have to exist in Domino; it can live in DB2, Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, or other applications.

Lotus Development continues to grow beyond its monolithic roots. The notion of what constitutes a Domino application is undergoing a dramatic shift to encompass third-party applications and data.

Rnext should enable Lotus to continue to dominate the collaboration and knowledge-management markets.

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