Notes fans hope upgrade ends e-mail client's ugly-duckling status

Redesigned user interface may turn weakness into a strength, beta testers say

John Head isn't spilling any secrets when he says, "Most people think Lotus Notes is ugly."

Head is a Notes architect at consulting firm PSC Group LLC in Schaumburg, Ill. More than a few times, he has watched a client – a newly merged company, for instance – wrestle over whether to standardize on IBM's Notes and Domino or Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook and Exchange for employee e-mail. And, he said, he's seen the decision come down to the company's CEO "saying that he doesn't like the way Notes looks."

First released in 1989, Notes remains one of the most popular applications worldwide; IBM claimed several years ago that the software had more than 110 million users. But the user interface in Notes has long been maligned for being stuck in the '80s -- so much so that it has even spawned a Notes anti-fan site.

The vitriol that many users feel toward IBM's e-mail client is often cited as the biggest reason why Outlook was able to pull ahead of Notes in market share more than five years ago, without ever looking back. But it's also why Head and other members of the Notes faithful are so excited about IBM's upcoming Notes 8 upgrade.

IBM last Friday released the first public beta of Notes 8, along with a test version of its Domino 8 server counterpart. Acknowledging the criticisms of earlier Notes releases, IBM officials this week said that the company has "re-invented" the user interface from the ground up, adding new features and fully bringing the software into the Web 2.0 era.

"This is not your father's Notes," said Ken Bisconti, vice president of Lotus messaging and collaboration products at IBM. At the same time, he added, one of the longtime strengths of Notes – its legendary backward-compatibility – won't be compromised. Companies will still have "complete investment protection," Bisconti said. "All your old Notes apps will work."

Major new features include the ability to view and compose files in the Open Document Format for Office Applications directly within Notes. The upgrade also can detect the online presence of co-workers or friends who are on the instant messaging buddy lists of users, enabling them to send IMs from within Notes via IBM's Sametime software. In addition, Notes 8 can be used to view RSS feeds.

The upgrade also includes numerous user interface tweaks, such as the use of colors to denote different e-mail senders, the ability to add contacts by dragging and dropping e-mails, and support for sorting messages by subject threads, a la Google Inc.'s Gmail service.

All told, the changes being made by IBM should help turn what was still an Achilles' heel in Notes 7 into a strength, said Nathan Freeman, a consultant at Lotus 911 Inc., a consulting firm in Kennesaw, Ga.

"The in-box is totally rethought, and there's extensive improvements to every aspect of presentation and usability of mail and calendaring," said Freeman, who like Head has been using Notes 8 for the past six months and giving IBM feedback on the software. Lotus 911 has already deployed the new software to all of its own employees.

Head was even more emphatic about the improvements in the new-look Notes. "When I show Notes 8 to people, they say, "Wow! That can't be Notes,'" he said. The software's design, once "very clunky," has been updated so that it's clean without being "Web 2.0 trendy," Head added.

He acknowledged that IBM is stealing user interface design concepts from Outlook and Gmail. But it's also taking a page out of Microsoft's playbook and embracing and then extending advances first made by others, according to Head.

For instance, an e-mail threading feature in Notes 8 lets users preview messages in a thread and rearrange them to stack the most important ones on top. Head said that improves upon Gmail's threading, which lets users view messages only according to the most recent one sent or received.

New user interfaces, such as the Ribbon strip included in Microsoft's Office 2007 software, have the potential to foment rebellion from users uncomfortable with change. And the addition of new features sometimes can backfire, especially in already CPU-hungry software like e-mail clients. Microsoft's Outlook 2007 software has engendered a litany of complaints about slow performance from early users.

Chris Whisonant, a senior systems administrator at Comporium Communications, a telecommunications service provider in Rock Hill, S.C., said the increased functionality in Notes 8 means that the upgrade "does use more RAM than before." But Whisonant said that Notes 8 "is easy to get used to because you just like using it more."

Head said he doesn't expect performance to be an issue for Notes 8 users. "I think for anybody who hasn't seen it and expects that because it involves Eclipse and Java it will have to be slow, they'll be surprised," he said.

Notes 8 runs in several modes. The standard version leverages Eclipse and AJAX technology to provide the full set of user interface enhancements and new features. IBM said users with less powerful PCs can run Notes 8 in a basic mode that lacks many of the user interface improvements.

IBM first previewed Notes 8 and Domino 8 at its annual Lotusphere user conference in January. It plans to release versions of the client software for Windows and Linux sometime around midyear, along with Domino 8 for a variety of server platforms. The company has said it will ship a Macintosh version of Notes 8 a few months later.

The future of Notes and Domino were in some doubt for the past several years as IBM pushed its Workplace collaboration software. But the company announced at Lotusphere that Workplace, which had garnered little user interest, was being killed off as a separate product.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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