When It’s Time to Abandon Ship

Why it's tough to get away from old standbys.

An interesting article in ComputerWorld the other day caught my eye. FewClix announced the introduction of a plug-in for the much-maligned Lotus Notes email application.

From the article, the FewClix plug-in allows for the following:

Archiving: While Notes only lets users archive batches of e-mail by date, FewClix offers archiving by any combination of factors, such as recipient + before date + attachment. The beta requires users to search archives separate from the main inbox, but that will be changed by the general release, Kumar said.

Folders and Groups: Rather than forcing users to set rules that route e-mails into various folders, Fewclix lets users keep their e-mails in the inbox but reduce clutter by creating different “Groups.” Those groups can virtually offload read and process e-mails to “done” groups, mimicking the delete/inbox removal process advocated by David Allen’s Getting Things Done regimen, Kumar said.

Performance: A slick demo Kumar showed involved a Notes database with 12,000 e-mails. He said FewClix’s in-memory index enables “very good” performance for mailboxes as large as 200,000 e-mails.

Now, I have not used Lotus Notes in nearly eight years but recently worked with a consultant forced to use the application for email. In a phrase, she hated it, and with good reason. I believed then–as I do now–that Lotus Notes is not remotely user-friendly. It completely deserves its reputation as a clunker.

Note that Notes’ purists will insist that you can use Domino Designer to develop databases and web applications. While I don’t dispute this, as an email client, I have never met a true Notes’ fan. It’s simply clunky.

The Problem with Plug-Ins

While I am a huge fan of plug-ins (especially for Firefox, my browser), this is the wrong route to go for Lotus Notes for several reasons. First, remember that Notes is primarily a corporate email application. I’ll bet you a Coke that most IT departments will not sanction employees’ downloading third-party plug-ins to use with Lotus Notes. Imagine if the aforementioned Domino tools have been used to customize Notes, something that I have certainly seen before. The plug-ins can cause IT departments major problems.

Second, what does that say about your application when plug-ins have to address basic features, such as search and performance? We’re not talking about a cool new theme or the ability to add fish swimming in the background. This is core stuff, man.

Finally, why should end-users have to suffer when there are so many user-friendly alternatives? I have used Gmail, Yahoo mail, and different versions of web-based Outlook. Each is vastly superior with respect to search and its overall user interface (UI).

Why IBM Won’t Blow Up Lotus Notes

I honestly have no idea. IBM has certainly embraced change, as evinced by their recent adoption of open source technologies such as Linux. Perhaps someone can explain this to me?

philanimated

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21 Comments

  1. Dag Kvello

    From what You write here I think You really need to update Your knowledge on Lotus Notes.
    Your comments shows that You have no clue as to what’s happened in the eight years since You last used it.

    Reply
  2. philsimon

    Thanks for the response, Dag.

    Perhaps I do need to understand it more. I can only tell you that the version that my colleague was using didn’t exactly strike me as user-friendly. It was very slow and the search capability was really antiquated.

    Are you using a vanilla version of the tool? What specifically am I wrong about?

    Reply
  3. Dag Kvello

    Well, I use Lotus Notes 8.5.1 Standard as a client.
    No modifications at all.
    I use Outlook 2007/2010 as well as GroupWise (Long term customer projects makes it so that I use all three on a daily basis).

    I really can’t see what would make anyone claim that the current Lotus Notes client is in any way less user friendly than the current MS and/or Novell offerings.

    Of course, if I comparing Outlook 2007 to an eight year old version of Lotus Notes, the Notes client would feel less “current” in layout/colours/look&feel.

    But that would be as unreasonable as comparing Lotus Notes 8.5.x against MS Mail 3.5 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Microsoft_Mail.png)

    As far as functionality/UI/Security goes, Notes 8.5.1 is above and beyond Outlook 2007 (and 2010).
    UI wise its of course a matter of taste and the default MS look never appealed that much to me in the first place.

    Reply
  4. Adam Bullock

    Regardless of your knowledge on the specific product, I think the three topics you touched on within the “The Problem with Plug-Ins” section of the post is an absolutely fair assessment.

    I can just see the collective *shudder* of IT personnel when they read/hear the word “plug-in.” With that said, I’m sure IBM has fantastic and informative documentation to help calm the potential fears of IT managers.

    Interesting post, Phil. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  5. Ryan

    Your section on the Problem with Plug-ins is quite interesting to me because my company (eProductivity) makes a Lotus Notes product that can be perceived as a plug-in. We provide a much-enhanced Notes user experience and user-friendly productivity tools through a new Mail template.

    I think your assessment of IT department reaction is fair, but it’s also can be overcome. We now have agreements in place with IBM, and that helps a lot when talking with customer. Most importantly, our software has a history of proven reliability, and it was built by former Notes admins. We’re seeing more and more traction with IT departments in many, many large corporations around the world, including major financial companies that are typically very stringent with IT lockdowns.

    So while a “plug-in” may not always be the best route to go in Notes, I don’t think it’s automatically the wrong route.

    Reply
  6. philsimon

    Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

    I didn’t mean to imply that the plug-in is the wrong route. I would argue that plug-ins, “add-ins”, and extensions to current applications make core products work in different ways, some of which are perceived as better by those that choose to use them. I suppose that “Web 2.0” is about letting people use different applications in different ways.

    My main point was the LN has been, in my view, deficient for years. Sites like http://lotusnotessucks.4t.com/index.html have been around for quite a while. I just don’t understand why IBM would sit still when it clearly has the resources to make a more user-friendly app.

    Their loss is your gain, I suppose.

    Reply
  7. Ryan

    Yes, there are many anti-Notes sites, and there are very legitimate reasons why. As you mentioned, this creates a huge opportunity for us. 🙂

    We have lots of testimonials from people who now love Notes because they got eProductivity, so it’s amazing what can result from a focus on the end-user. IBM recognizes this too, hence why they’re partnering with us (and other 3rd parties). They’re also doing plenty of internal work on Notes 8 to make it more user-friendly. Notes improvement is happening…

    Reply
  8. Ian Randall

    Lotus Notes includes an email feature yes, which some people like and dislike.

    But Lotus Notes is also a rubust collaborative systems platform for a whole universe of other collaborative features, including replication, security & encruption, role based workflow, integrated instant messaging, web development, rapid integrated development environment (with a free designer), automatic software updates, execution control, electronic signatures etc. etc.

    Collaborative applications in Lotus Notes run without change in both a Rich Client and a Web browser interface and code that was developed back in version 1 still runs without problems with the latest release 8.5.1. (over 20 years later).

    The same Lotus Notes code base runs on Apple Macs, Windows and various Lunux environments without problems and the same applications can run in a tiny self–healing LINUX compliance, all the way up to a huge mainframe or a a complex mixed OS cluster with hundreds of processors. It’s untra- relable as well, since 1993 I have personally never lost a single byte of data in a Lotus Notes database.

    Limiting your perspective of Lotus Notes to it’s email features only, is like comparing Microsoft Excel to the Windows Calculator.

    You like many other poorly informed commentators just don’t seem to get it.

    Ian Randall

    Reply
  9. philsimon

    You’re right, Ian. Maybe I don’t get it.

    I did acknowledge the other features of LN in the initial post but, for many people, they only care about email and it’s really hard to defend LN on that point, in my view.

    I like the Excel analogy, but what if your organization didn’t permit you to use a calculator and Excel had a really user-unfriendly one?

    Reply
  10. Patrick Kwinten

    so what is your suggestion for the replacement of Notes. Please don’t mention a MS product because then your whole article can be taken not serious.

    Dig a little deeper with your writing.

    Reply
  11. philsimon

    Patrick

    Thanks for the comment.

    I was only suggesting that Notes’ user-friendliness and search feature are improved such that plug-ins aren’t required. I know that we’re dealing with personal preferences here. MS Outlook has its pros and cons as well.

    If LN were a new product with some core deficiencies, that would be one thing. It’s not. To me, the product has for years not done things that many core users expect.

    Take a product like Gmail. While it may not have all of the capabilities of a product like LN, it certain makes searching emails pretty straightforward.

    Of course, to quote Dennis Miller, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

    Reply
  12. Ed Brill

    Phil, the point that isn’t being said directly in the comments about Notes progress — sites like “lotusnotessucks.4t.com” are years old. They are based on version 5 or 6 or maybe 7 of the product. Version 8, shipped in 2005, was a major rewrite of the Notes UI. This version works well and that is the point of the first commenter. You don’t have to necessarily look to our future roadmap to see a usable version of the product today. See
    http://www-01.ibm.com/software/lotus/products/notes/
    for screenshots and other details.

    Reply
  13. philsimon

    This has been a really interesting thread, with opinions running the gamut.

    For one, it’s certainly not fair to “blame” IBM if its clients have clung to much older versions of Lotus Notes that may not have some of the improvements that Ed has mentioned.

    On the other, it’s probably understandable that many clients have not upgraded if, as some have mentioned, they have used LN as a development platform for other applications critical to the enterprise.

    Perhaps that’s where plug-ins can come in, although I don’t know enough about the ones mentioned in the earlier post from FewClix to say that they will or will not work with LN v 5, 6, or 7.

    I think that the core issue here is if IT departments are reluctant to upgrade LN when there are other factors at stake behind “user-friendliness.”

    Reply
  14. Brian

    I’ve worked extensively with Notes and I agree with your points.

    Plug-ins sound chaotic, and key features like search are better built in.

    As for the notes mail user experience. The latest version is still not on par with the competition. Its cleaned up UI was accomplished adding a complex layer of eclipse java components which “mask” the old school C++ client underneath at the cost of performance, and added complexity. The result is Notes R8 runs slowly on the average corporate desktop, takes too much disk space, and has many times the failure points.

    That said, Lotus Notes as a rapid application environment STILL after all these years cannot be beat. You can deploy very effective work-flow applications, quickly, with low development and infrastructure costs. Also the Domino server software really is a joy to manage compared to other products. It works on just about every platform known and even plays seamlessly across multiple platforms.

    For so many years now I wished IBM would resist trying to sew yet another mismatched arm on Frankenstein and build from the ground up a streamlined version with the best of Notes, renewed, and all polished to perfection.

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      Your last sentence was the main point of my post. Sometimes, you have to start from scratch and ask, What are we really doing here?

      Reply
  15. Catalin Acatrinei

    I see many people bash Lotus for its “email capabilities”; while I see many jaws dropping when I show them the latest version with the iNotes and Ultralite webmail version (btw looks amazing on iPhone ;-)), I do believe that using Lotus Notes only for email is like buying a Porsche in Switzerland…an overkill.

    As for comparing Lotus Exchange with Microsoft Exchange, I think that TCO should be taken into account. Using apps built 20 years ago on the latest version of Lotus is unmatched…

    Reply
  16. Richard Schwartz

    To me, the odd thing about this thread is encapsulated in these key sentences:

    “… the product has for years not done things that many core users expect.

    Take a product like Gmail. While it may not have all of the capabilities of a product like LN, it certain makes searching emails pretty straightforward.”

    Yes, GMail does make it easy to search email. In fact, GMail is the the first email client I’ve seen that made it almost as easy as Lotus Notes did — in Notes 3.0 in 1993! You see, that’s when Lotus introduced a full-text search engine as a built-in (no plugins) feature of Lotus Notes.

    The idea that this “for years” is just simply false. It may be the case that many Notes & Domino system admins don’t enable it because it requires extra disk space and CPU, and it may be the case that most companies that use Notes don’t give their users the training they would need in order to get around their admins’ restrictions by building the index on their local hard drive — but surely it’s not a flaw in Lotus Notes that it was a decade ahead of widespread acceptance of the idea that users should be able to keep all their email and search it easily.

    By the way, though I’m a Notes guy at heart, for the past 4 years I’ve been an Outlook user. For the first two, I had to use a plugin to get half-decent searching in Outlook 2003, but Outlook 2007 finally solved that by integrating Windows Desktop Search, and finally made searching my Exchange and Outlook data in some ways better than the experience I had had since Notes 3 — though still in some ways not as easy.

    So while there are certainly things that a plugin like FewClix can do today to improve the presentation of Notes search results, IMHO the basic search capabilities of Notes are still very competitive with GMail. That’s without any plug-in, and in some ways, Notes search blows GMail away. E.g., Notes gives me all the results, and lets me scroll them, whereas Gmail only gives me 20 results at a time Also, Notes gives me the ability to select different criteria for ordering of search results, whereas GMail returns results in only one order. (Now, maybe there are some “Google Labs” extensions for GMail search that I don’t know about, but those would fall into a category similar to plugins, IMHO.)

    Reply
  17. Marcus Ripley

    People really still use Notes?! Is the mail client still as unfriendly as ever?

    Reply
  18. teoh

    Lotus notes are just useless, no update, no info can be found through internet, not developer friendly, is better to abandon it n switch to other mail client

    Reply

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