Lotus makes info more accessible

The latest release of Lotus Notes is all about the user. To begin with, IBM Corp. officials have made it easier for users to access information and have emphasized collaboration, especially in the form of instant messaging. The Sametime instant messaging server is now a core component of the Notes/Domino family, bringing a host of new possibilities for delivering applications that take advantage of messaging and dynamic presence — indicators of who is online and available — to deliver a new level of functionality.

Some users may find Notes somewhat cumbersome to use because it still has the feel of a database. However, the new interface and features push it closer to its competitors in terms of functionality and Internet standards. And compared to products from Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc., Notes offers stronger workflow and collaboration tools, thanks in large part to its

database-centric design.

The latest version's emphasis on the users' experience is evident from the start. During installation of the client software, the program walks users through choices about how to present information. You can choose to include the Inbox, Calendar, To-Do List, Subscriptions, Everyday Tasks, Database, File System, Web Page and Search categories. Subsequent steps allow you to specify where the information will be displayed on the screen, what Web page will be displayed and what additional components will be added, such as the action bar.

If you select too many options, you'll have a cluttered work space. Keeping the selections to a minimum also makes for more viewable information. The other options can easily be accessed with a few mouse clicks or the change of a pane of the Welcome page on the fly. A "Click here for Welcome Page Options" button lets you change your setup or start all over if necessary.

In addition to Notes' new customizability, I liked the integration of Lotus Sametime. You must still install the Sametime server separately, but with this release, Lotus has made the instant messaging portion of the Sametime product free to existing customers.

As with previous versions, much of the power in the Notes system is behind the scenes. The new version of Domino Designer, for example, offers application developers the ability to add an online presence to any Notes application. And Domino 6.5 makes use of standards such as Extensible Markup Language to store information related to each form.

Using JavaServer Pages, XML and Web services makes it easier to integrate with other applications and reuse data collected by a Domino application. The use of standards also makes it easier to apply knowledge of XML gained in Web development to a Domino application.

Lotus Enterprise Integrator makes it possible to connect Domino applications to any number of databases, including those from IBM, Sybase Inc., Oracle Corp. or any vendor that uses application program interface standards such as Open Database Connectivity or Microsoft Corp.'s Object Linking and Embedding. Fill-in forms make adding a new connection a snap. An activity wizard guides you through the process of creating a Virtual Document for displaying the information retrieved from the database. The WebSphere integrator tool gives developers a simple way to connect to applications hosted on IBM's WebSphere application server.

Managing a Domino server requires a client machine loaded with the Domino Administrator software. Having an administration console separate from the primary server makes it easy to control multiple servers from a single location. IBM has also added new links to other management tools such as the company's Tivoli software suite. Overall, the administrator software is easy to use and delivers all the tools needed to keep a Domino server up and running.

The Notes/Domino solution also offers strong platform support. Domino Web Access extends the Notes client to Linux clients through a Web browser. The Web client follows the same user interface themes as the standard Notes client and provides virtually the same level of functionality. Most of the features have been replicated, but you can't perform some functions, such as working with local data while disconnected from the server, with a Web-based client.

The Domino server also runs on Linux and other flavors of Unix, including IBM's AIX and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris. On the mainframe side, there's support for IBM's OS/390.

The Notes/Domino solution offers a powerful set of features and functions. Existing Notes users will want to consider upgrading, especially if they need to integrate with other IBM products such as WebSphere and DB2. New users — specifically those looking to migrate from other platforms — must factor in the cost of training users and managing the system.

Ferrill, based in Lancaster, Calif., has been writing about computers and software for more than 15 years. He can be reached at paul.ferrill@verizon.net.

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