A Lifetime Of Notes

Rusty's been "upgraded" to Lotus Notes R5. And he doesn't like it any better than the previous versions.

Rusty Weston, Contributor

August 14, 2001

5 Min Read

The enormous popularity of Lotus Notes may one day baffle techno-anthropologists, who will scan through holographic records looking for clues as to why this bloated software package was loaded on 25 million desktops in the year 2001. At least, it's a mystery to me, and I've been using Notes or writing about it for most of its 12-year commercial existence.

I like to think of Lotus Notes as the cyber equivalent of a Hummer vehicle. You know, that 7,200-lb. Jeep-on-steroids that looks like it could survive a nuclear blast? Picture the U.S. Postal Service using Hummers to deliver the mail. It wouldn't be energy efficient or maneuverable on city streets, but no barking dog would dare cross the mail truck's path. What's amiss about that? It's overkill, pure and simple. You don't need a Hummer to deliver the mail.

Lotus Notes might not sport the most graceful interface ever invented, but then that's never been the key to its success. Close observers of the PC era will recall that Lotus was early into "feature rich" desktop productivity applications. Some of the apps sported iconic buttons the size of my thumbnails. Those of us who eagerly or warily wrestled with Lotus Symphony or Lotus 1-2-3 recall when Notes was originally marketed as a personal information manager. And no one knew what that meant, really, but we were impressed that it was new.

I was surprised when a version 2 shipped, but it wasn't long before our visionary CEO bought a few thousand licenses and pulled us into the future. Today, Notes R5 is billed as a Web-savvy, collaborative, knowledge-management-based E-mail system. It's a wonder anyone can fit all those buzzwords on one hard drive.

My company just upgraded to R5, and I'm fairly certain we weren't the first ones on the digital block to make this small leap for mankind. I blinked at first, thinking I was seeing a flashback to an interface not entirely unlike Apple's HyperCard, circa 1989. But that was a mirage; In fact, R5's interface is modeled after a Web browser. It says so in the company's literature.

Can You Spell Relief?
Granted, mine is a contrarian view. Notes has garnered more product-of-the-year accolades than, say, Julia Roberts has earned for acting. Notes is a trailblazer, all but defining the category of groupware on PCs. Notes also popularized the practice of replication between client and server.

The original product was bloated ahead of its time. It included an address book, discussion-board software, and E-mail. In a sop to security mavens, Notes 1.0 offered encryption. Still, in 1989 (the year it debuted), Lotus issued 35,000 licenses, according to the authors of Notes.net. By the time version 3 rolled out in May 1993, nearly 500,000 of us were already "groupies," according to the same historians. To tighten up a long success story, by the end of 1997, 20 million people were using Notes. By 2003, Lotus cites a prediction that there will be 30 million Notes clients.

Obviously, a healthy percentage of network administrators dig the bulletproof foundation of Lotus Notes. If your organization has a request for proposal for an E-mail system that includes the kitchen sink, I'm sure Notes is going to win.

In my E-mail RFP, however, there's one spec that will trigger my purchase: speed. That's not really a contest Notes can win. Do most people in your company use Notes' groupware features, such as databases? There are good reasons why corporations don't use programs that fuse word processors and spreadsheets. Most of them fall under the heading of too many compromises.

I'm far from the only person who feels this way. It's an open secret in my company that a group of E-mail dissidents (probably most of them drink beer out of bottles, too) forward all their company mail to Microsoft Outlook or other alternatives. Most of the editors I know who are neutral about Notes have never used another system.

True, R5 adds some important usability improvements. And the truth is, it does seem a little faster than previous versions. Still, the version of QuickMail I used on a 68020 Macintosh in the late '80s was maybe twice as fast and far more intuitive. Of course I know several tech writers who still use Microsoft Word 5.1 on their Macintoshes because subsequent releases were too slow and too loaded with features they never intend to use.

While we're in the midst of lighting up the R5 Christmas tree with ornamental features, how about two new buttons? One would be called "block" and it would build a database of E-mail addresses banned from my in-box. I'd use this to try to prevent spam from the debt scams, job scams, and pornographers that swamp us each day. Another button would be called "report," which would enable me to automatically forward particularly heinous E-mails to my network administrator who would be empowered o take action if necessary. By now, it's clear that the people who brought us Notes (Iris Associates) never could resist a good feature so maybe they'll go for this.

Coda: Along comes Groove, the knowledge-management software by Notes co-creator Ray Ozzie and friends. It's a depository of unstructured data such as threaded discussions, organized in a space somewhat akin to an extranet, available to view only by those on a guest list. Groove's (groove.net) a trailblazer and it sounds promising. Let's hope someone bothered to "Just Say No" to duplicating the complexity of its predecessor. One good sign: I don't think it includes E-mail.

Rusty Weston is editor of InformationWeek.com and InformationWeek Research. What's your perspective on Notes and Groove? Tell us at the Listening Post.

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