Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Lotus Notes and the Importance of Not Ruling Out Entrenched Platforms

By Dennis D. McDonald

One of the more interesting blog comment series I've read recently is the ongoing discussion about Lotus Notes over at Rod Boothby's Innovation Creators blog.

A couple of weeks ago Rod posted Lotus Notes - The Asbestos of Enterprise IT. In it he lambasted Lotus Notes' usability, among other things. This has led to some back and forth - and mudslinging - that when read in the right light tells us a lot about the advantages entrenched platforms have in large corporations when they compete with up-and-coming Web 2.0 "newcomers."

In the interest  of full disclosure, I should say that I have had experience with Lotus Notes as a user in several different types of situations. It left me with some bad feelings -- as well as grudging respect. So I read Rod's comments and find myself nodding in agreement quite frequently. At the same time, I think Rod hasn't been completely fair or complete in his comments.

One of Rod's basic complaints is that the usability of Lotus Notes is low and that lock-in to the client occurs partly because of its complexity. Rod compares this with attractive, easy to use, and customizable "web 2.0" applications.

On the user interface side I have to agree with Rod. The out of box features that Rod illustrates on his blog bring back bad memories. The fact that the basic ugliness can be customized easily by trained staff is an argument that falls on deaf ears to someone rushing around to get a job done.

I think that the dividing line between "developer customization" and "user customization," at least with older versions of Lotus Notes, was much too heavy on the "developer" side. That's why (I think) when you look at the main menus for so many applications across different companies they tend to look alike -- ugly but utilitarian.

One of the things that makes this argument complex is that Lotus Notes is a platform for developing and delivering applications, not just a single application. A trained person can create special apps that integrate forms based data management with the built in email and security tools very rapidly, then deploy them instantaneously across a Notes enabled enterprise network. That's a good thing, and that's been the case long before "web 2.0" became a popular tag. I've worked in situations where that type of support was available and I was definitely impressed.

Where I have usually gotten tangled up, even when I have been fortunate to work with IT staff who were very familiar with Notes and its developer tools, was that the tools were built around concepts of forms, document management, and workflow that sometimes (at least to me) seemed at odds both with standard database management principles and with standard web user interface and page display metaphors. Using Lotus Notes by day, then going home to use the web at large by night, can be a jarring experience if you are not careful.

The bottom line, though, is that having someone stand there and tell me all the wonderful things that are possible using Lotus Notes is no help when I have a project due that day and the trained developer is working on someone else's project.

My view is that Lous Notes was originally developed at a time when its total development and delivery environment, coupled with its ability to integrate workflow into support for business processes, were perhaps more advanced than many companies could handle. That was also at a time when the whole web-standard Intranet trend had not yet swept through corporate populations. (And maybe there was just a teensy bit of oversell on the part of the sales people who sold the product into corporate environments with vague promises that "end users will finally be able to develop their own applications!")

So while I sympathize with Rod, I also think that, if IBM plays its cards right with Lotus Notes, the differences between generally available Web 2.0 collaboration and relationship management tools, and what can be built  securely using the Lotus Notes platform, might actually shrink. True, the prices IBM charges may seem different, but there may also be quite a few corporate managers who will respond positively to the security and reliability that mighty IBM says it can provide.


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