Lotus Notes update proves solid

Lotus Development Corp.'s latest version of its Notes client and Domino server groupware platform, announced last week, offers significant improvements in openness and modularity, and it features a new browser-like interface.

We tested the second public beta of Release 5, which underwent few changes in the days before the final release. We found the package to be a logical upgrade for Notes users and a much more attractive option for nonusers.

Government agencies will especially like the new-found openness of the platform. R5 should once and for all eliminate concerns about Notes being a proprietary product. The Domino server supports a variety of clients in addition to Notes. Better yet, the Notes client now can operate independently of the Domino server. You can use the Notes client to access information from just about anywhere—the Internet, files on your computer or Notes databases.

Lotus also has separated the Notes product line into three distinct elements—the Domino server, the Notes client and the Domino Designer application development tool—and you can choose which you want to install.

Client Enhancements

Veteran Notes users should prepare for a jolt: The Notes client has been completely redesigned. In fact, the new client interface looks considerably different from the first R5 beta versions. Say goodbye to the old tabbed workspace; now it looks like a World Wide Web browser. It includes a customizable workspace with bookmarks and an addressing window that lets you browse the Web directly. A new navigation bar has Forward and Back buttons. All these features make the Notes client a one-stop shop for the information you need. You can easily click back and forth between your calendar or to-do list, an open Word document, a Notes database or a Web page.

A special area called the Headlines page lets you chose the information you want to see. For example, you can customize the Headlines page to automatically check your e-mail, get updates from a Web page or show your daily to-do list. This is a very handy way to use Notes to get the information that is most important to you.

The Notes client also features a much-improved e-mail function. In the previous release, Notes Mail was made to look more like cc:Mail, and R5 continues along this road. Notes Mail now includes a separate address header for messages; type-down and type-ahead addressing; and an inbox that displays the newest messages on top. Notes Mail also lets you easily define rules, such as which folder to put certain messages in when a message is received. We found this the most useful addition to the mail function. None of these enhancements is exactly earth-shattering, but it is important that Notes Mail includes them.

The calendar has been similarly improved. New preferences let you select free-time availability, alarm defaults and calendar-view defaults. You also have the ability to set up and view group calendars. Best of all, the printing capability for the calendar view is much better.

With the new interface, Lotus clearly intends the Notes client to compete with Internet browsers. To do this, Lotus needed to make the Notes client stand apart from the server and be easy for the average user to download, install, deploy and update. The company generally has succeeded based on the second beta.

Installing Notes was surprisingly painless and relatively quick. You simply follow a series of setup wizards that let you choose the way you want to run Notes. If you want to connect to a Domino server only, you can do it. Or you can connect to a Domino server and the Internet. We opted to set up Notes as an Internet client, and we had no problems.

Improved searching is a major part of R5. The search icon appears in the navigation toolbar for quick access. The search dialog lets you perform more advanced and targeted searches, and you can search a variety of sources. For example, you can search the Notes network, the Web or your computer's file system.

Finally, the R5 client has enhanced support for mobile computing. R5 includes the Lightweight Mobile Directory, which is a local copy of your enterprise directory in a highly compressed format. It lets you store up to 250,000 names in a database that is no larger than 12M. Put it on your laptop, and you still can access critical information about the organization quickly, without needing to be connected to the server.

Server Options

The Domino R5 server offers more flexibility, greater support for open standards, increased power and easier administration.

In the area of flexibility, you can choose the server that best fits your organization's needs. The Domino Mail Server handles simple mail services; the Domino Server handles mail and standard application services; and the Domino Enterprise Server is designed for larger enterprises with server clustering, load balancing and failover services. You can start with a small server and upgrade as your requirements grow.

Server installation was relatively easy. Wizards guided us through the process, which took less than 20 minutes.

Domino server administration promises to be much easier. R5 includes a separate administration client, which has a graphical user interface, for monitoring your servers remotely. You can launch the administration client directly from the Notes client task bar or as a separate application.

There is much to like about the administration client. The interface has separate panes and tabbed pages that organize the management tasks. This makes it easy to register users, create groups, configure servers and so on. The messaging tab lets you quickly access critical information about messaging functions, while the replication tab has graphical indicators that let you monitor replication at a glance. Administrators should be very happy with the administration client features.

Overall, Lotus has made most of the moves it needed to with R5. However, there will still be some migration issues for Notes users. The beta version had some buggy little elements, but these are likely to be smoothed out in the general-release version. Still, upgrading and training costs will be significant.

R5 should make Notes much more attractive to nonusers or users of other

e-mail packages. Users familiar with a Web browser will make the transition to the new Notes client with little difficulty, but such users will need some time and training to take full advantage of the power of the platform.

--O'Donnell is the Lotus Notes editor for Group Computing magazine.

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