Lotus Notes and Domino 8 show new life

IBM Lotus leverages Eclipse standards and plug-in approach to breathe modernization into a dusty platform

I'll admit that in my IBM Lotus Notes 7 review about two years ago, I got Version 8's release date a wee bit off. Hey, the fortune teller I consulted skipped town right after the reading. But my wrap-up hit the mark, saying Notes 8 "should further support composite applications, such as bringing together e-mail, documents, and meetings into a single interface -- a key part of an SOA." Here's my initial impression of how well IBM Lotus engineers met this goal and the way they did it.

Fundamentally, Lotus Notes and Domino 8 aren't about new mail and calendar features. Rather, this release is about a paradigm shift in the desktop client. Your inbox is now home base for integrating all types of business applications. A lot has already been said about the programming model, Lotus Expeditor 6.1.1, which employs eclipse.org open standards. So let's spotlight the user experience and collaboration.

Notes 8 has a clean new look, logical menus, and customizable layouts; for me, this design makes the client easier to use compared to Microsoft Outlook. Still, current Notes users should feel comfortable with the mail client, since it works much as before. You see the familiar list of messages tagged with importance. However, now you can preview documents in a vertical pane to the right, and you can recall messages -- two features that Microsoft Outlook has offered for ages. Where Notes now beats Outlook, though, is in its capability of arranging messages as a conversation thread -- and these can span an entire mail file, not just your inbox. Just highlight one message and all related ones automatically become part of the thread. Moreover, I really liked how Notes can move the entire thread to a separate folder, which makes managing your mailbox much easier.

Calendar isn't radically different. There's better color coding of events, and you can see meeting invitations on the calendar before you accept them -- here again, features that Outlook has included for a while. Contacts (previously called personal address book) are more visually appealing in the new release, with a business card view and hooks into instant messaging.

Like Outlook and Exchange 2007, Notes and Domino 8 makes good use of presencing: Hovering over a message shows if the sender is online and then lets you start an IM chat. But I find the IBM Lotus implementation more elegant than Microsoft's, and here's where Eclipse plays a big role. Lotus Sametime instant messaging is integrated as a plug-in (written with Expeditor) that's accessed from an expanded sidebar. From the end-user standpoint, I found this arrangement greatly reduced screen clutter while providing quick access to many other features, including a minicalendar view and the new RSS feed reader.

The plug-in approach is also compelling from an IT standpoint. With relative ease, developers should be able to create plug-ins (with Lotus Domino Designer 8 or Eclipse-based tools) that mashup data from in-house systems (such as CRM and HR systems) and outside Web services. There's also a Composite Application Editor to wire components together by dragging and dropping them into a compound application, which should speed development.

For search, Notes 8 has its own engine for IBM Lotus files, including e-mail and other local Notes databases. Interestingly, integration with Google Desktop Search (if it's installed) allows a single query to display results from Notes, your desktop, and the Web.

Yet for real value, kudos to IBM Lotus for embedding ODF (open document format) editors for presentations, spreadsheets, and word processing, which you access without leaving Notes 8. I think this feature should especially benefit enterprises running multiple desktop platforms. Linux users of Lotus Notes 8 (and Mac users in 2008) can work on the same files as Windows users without special software or conversion steps that often cause ugly formatting problems.

In doing all this editing, it's likely you'll have a bunch of open windows. But that's not a big deal, since Lotus Notes 8 provides a thumbnail application viewer, which lets you quickly go to the open tab you want.

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Mike Heck

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