Lotus Notes gets a facelift: Version 8 beta review and visual tour

The public beta of Notes 8 features an overhauled interface aimed at making its notoriously user-unfriendly e-mail suite easier to use. How well does it succeed?

Computerworld has been a Notes shop for more than a decade, but I've yet to come across a colleague who's said "I love Notes!" or even "I like Notes a lot." Instead, I usually hear frustration -- and occasional swearing.

Which is a failure of execution, since the concept is a good one. IBM's Lotus Notes is one of those software packages that should make your life easier. It corrals white-collar must-haves such as e-mail, calendar and contacts into one coherent place, while offering some reasonably powerful database offerings.

But Notes has always come with annoyances. For instance, in Version 6.5, which we use at Computerworld, wrong names pop into e-mail "To:" fields based on, say, the first "Sharon" who shows up alphabetically in a directory. The recipient isn't simply suggested; Notes autocompletes the address unbidden. For those who hit Send without checking, messages head off to unintended recipients. Numerous e-mails meant for me have ended up in the in-boxes of other Sharons. And I've misdirected my own fair share.

Notes also has a well-deserved reputation for being somewhat user-hostile. Built-in help can be Byzantine, and customization tools are so scattered that it can be tough to find how to make a change even if you've seen an option several times before. Where was that "change the color of an incoming e-mail" tool? Is it in Mail > Tools > Rules? Or Tools > Preferences > Mail? Or File > Preferences > User Preferences > Mail?

That's why we pricked up our ears when IBM announced the public beta of Notes 8 for Windows and Linux, featuring an overhauled user interface. Lotus Domino 8 server is also in public beta, but our IT department didn't have the capacity to set up a test environment on short notice. Because I didn't have access to the full Version 8 server install, some of Notes' new features were unavailable to me. However, I was able to give the Notes beta a test drive as an e-mail and calendaring client.

I was eager to see whether Lotus Notes 8 built on the good and fixed the bad. Is there finally a decent UI to match its feature lineup?

The new interface revealed


Lotus Notes 8 beta has an updated look, with many icons and buttons in an XP/IE7 sort of style. I'm not sure I'm a fan of that particular look, but the Version 6.5 interface I've been using until now definitely needed some kind of update.

The Mail in-box shows off Notes' new look.

The Mail in-box shows off Notes' new look. ()

The Open button with drop-down menu.

The Open button with drop-down menu. ()

And there are some improvements. Notes 8 boasts clearer ways to switch between different functions (e-mail, calendar, to-do, etc.), a new Open button that makes it pretty simple to access the various apps within Notes, and an ability to see e-mail threads (called "conversations") inside an individual message.

A word of warning for beta testers
If you're downloading the public beta software to play with the new interface while using an existing account on an older Domino (i.e., non-Version 8) server, a caution: Make sure you're not using an old design template. I hadn't checked that my first couple of days playing with the beta, and I thought the old in-box look hadn't changed much, despite IBM's claims to the contrary. Once I updated my design template, I could see there was actually a fairly substantial new look.

To check your design template in Version 8, while in Mail, click File > Application > Properties > Replace Design and see what you've got there. You want to select Mail (R8) from the available list.

-- Sharon Machlis  

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