Wed Apr 15 11:43:34 PDT 2015

Lotus Notes or IBM Notes - Call it What You Will

What is it like to transition to Lotus Notes from a more ad hoc approach to email, and related functions, such as calendars, and places to store documents and, most importantly, what is it like to leave Lotus Notes behind? In a word 'fantastic'!

At the outset, everybody struggles to make Lotus Notes work, and many succeed. Needless to say the people that come to treasure Notes do not have much experience of other email clients, scheduling software, or group ware. And when the time comes to leave Notes behind, there will be many that resist the change. In fact, the initial rollout of a Lotus Notes competitor may have to be reversed, because there is so much consumer resistance to the change. There are Notes enthusiasts!

Personally, I have to say that Lotus Notes is not 'my cup of tea'. I am staggered every day when I come to log on (you have to log into Lotus Notes, despite the fact that you have just managed to log into your workstation or laptop. To do this you encounter a strange dialog box which insists on showing you a large and mysterious set of hieroglyphs for each character that you type. You immediately have the sense that Notes developers have too much time on their hands, too little supervision, and no appreciation of the fact that users do not want to be surprised. Users want to get on with the task at hand, particularly if it a silly but necessary one like providing the second password of the day.

However, having obtained access to Notes, matters become far worse. The user interface is truly confusing. Needed actions are hidden in hard to remember places. User interface elements that look passive turn out to be vitally important in controlling the program, and so on.

Being dutiful employees, people help each other through the complexities of the basic use of Notes as an email client. Many people set up an array of folders, thinking that this might make their lives easier. Unfortunately with Notes this is not the case. I was one of these people - and I regretted it for years. I was forever being unable to find important email. The problem was that folders could not be made automatically; they could only be made and used manually. So, for example, if you wanted to store all your email to and from a given email address in one place, you would find yourself manually moving pieces of mail around. When manual intervention is required there are going to be problems and quickly everything that with any other email client would have been well organized was disorganized. I ended up giving up with folders and using 'the huge in box' approach. This works with GMail - because searching is fast - but with Notes - searching is the slowest thing imaginable and hidden behind a baffling interface.

An additional seemingly fundamental problem with Notes is its ability to inflate email message sizes. Notes can be set up in various different ways, but intrinsically each message seems to occupy a huge amount of disk space. People rapidly hit the maximum limit that the 'Notes Servers' can handle for each employee (about 200 Megabytes per employee, for example) and have to discard email, compact email files (nobody has ever explained what that means) and so on. Probably everyone will spend about an hour a day struggling with Notes in order to read their email.

One solution to the email server size limitations is the use of personal archive files. However, again these are astonishingly large. People rapidly obtain many hundred megabyte files for just their email archive. These archives are not only impressively large, they are impressively impenetrable, just single huge binary files - only readable and searchable only by Notes itself.

One pragmatic solution to the problem of finding email within Notes is provided by Google Desktop Enterprise Edition. This indexes your Notes files (it does this by installing a Notes plug-in). The net result is that you end up dedicating many Gigabytes of your hard drive to Notes files and many Gigabytes to your Google Desktop indices (which, of course take many, many hours to create). So this is not entirely satisfactory, however, it is certainly an improvement over the unassisted Lotus Notes interface.

Lotus Notes also offers a calendar and meeting management capability. This is rapidly embraced within every company, and people will happily book meeting rooms and projectors, and consult each others' schedules to organize meetings. I suspect that this leads to an unhealthy rise in the number of meetings and attendees, and a significant decline in productivity. After all, if is an important meeting, people will find out and make sure that they are there. If it is a matter of routine - then probably you don't need a meeting. If it is an emergency, then meet immediately, don't stop to try to figure out the Notes interface!

Having some interest in customization and programming, I once took a brief look at the possibility of customizing Notes. There are many, many customization options, ranging from Lotus 123! Like formulae, to Javascript, and LotusScript (generally computer languages specific to a program are a bad sign - Lotus Notes has at least two of these). You can fire up Excel from Notes, using OLE. Occasionally, I tried doing various things (like exporting calendar entries to Excel so that they could be printed more flexibly than Notes itself would allow (it wasn't worth the effort). Additionally, you can employ Notes consultants who will make customizations for you. (There has to be a message there - consultants to modify your email client - why?!)

This is far from the full story of all that Notes offers. In addition to creating problems in the worlds of email and calendars, Notes offers various capabilities that seem to completely duplicate more successful alternatives, yet dutiful employees try to use these, in order to be corporate in their approach to getting things done. Three examples are 'Sametime', which is an instant messaging application which typically requires ~700 MB of RAM in order to crash your machine if you try to use it with a video camera; QuickPlaces, which are rather like wiki, but stored in some kind of Lotus Notes database; and Teamrooms, which are document repositories, with the ability to review documents.

Eventually, the time comes to consider replacing Lotus Notes. Then of course there is a transition cost. Everyone has become accustomed to the diverse Lotus Notes ways of doing things, and any potential replacement needs to be able to replicate this diversity. Suffice it to say, it will be difficult to allow the organization to move on.

One of the more obscure capabilities of Lotus Notes turns out to be one of its most successful from the point of view of longevity. This is the ability to pass control of your calendar to an assistant. Most modern software makers would not consider such a capability important. However, for the decision makers who bring in or must contemplate the removal of Lotus Notes, assistants are important, and the alternative, managing ones own calendar, is clearly not viable. Hence, Lotus Notes will be with us until CEOs can manage their calendars themselves...which may be a long time!

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