Friday, January 06, 2006

I Love Lotus Notes

Lotus Notes is a truly great software product. It is slicker than black ice in New England in January. It may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but is better than anything invented before sliced bread. Alright, I may be over compensating to counter the claims at Lotus Notes Sucks (and elsewhere), but I really do love Notes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I worked on Notes from 1996 through 2002. As a software developer, I contributed to versions 4.5, 4.6, 5.0 and 6.0. Obviously, I don't like to hear people bash the product I worked on. On the other hand, I have also used Lotus Notes every working day for almost ten years. It is not and never will be a perfect product, but it also isn't nearly as bad as some people make it out to be.

Let's look at some indisputable facts:
  • When it was introduced in 1989, Notes pioneered the concept of groupware.
  • It is one the most successful desktop applications ever. For example, in 2000, Network Computing named Notes one of the top ten products of the 1990s.
  • Unlike many products of its vintage, Notes is still going strong. According to Ed Brill, Notes still has 120 million seats (see comment #9). Microsoft in particular has repeatedly tried to kill Notes, and Microsoft has a history of obliterating the competition in many market segments (think Wordperfect, Lotus 123 and Netscape Navigator). How many products have been able to withstand sustained competition from Microsoft? Notes and Quicken are the only two products that come to mind.
So why do many people dislike Notes? Why does the anonymous owner of Lotus Notes Sucks spend hours on his web site? Why does Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror fame rant against Notes on his other blog? Are evil CIOs intentionally torturing their users with a defective product? That would be ironic considering the early adoption of Notes was viral**.

In my opinion, people dislike Notes because their expectations don't jive with the original intent of the product. At its core, Notes is a runtime environment for collaborative applications, but when people complain about Notes, they are usually not talking about core Notes at all. They are talking about the Notes Mail and Calendar applications.

Why does this distinction matter? It matters because the Notes core is what a lot of people really love. The three core features I really like are:
  1. Replication. This is what lets you disconnect from the network and continue to read and send mail. It's also what lets Domino servers maintain multiple copies of your mail file. I don't think any product does replication as well as Notes and Domino.
  2. Security. Notes security was way ahead of it's time in 1989. It is still rock solid.
  3. Programmability. You don't like the way Notes Mail works? Programmability lets you (or an IT developer) fix small problems and add completely new features in mail. It's also what lets you build entirely new applications for your business.
None of this means IBM should disregard people's complaints about Notes Mail and Calendar. Far from it. I know IBM takes these complaints very seriously. The Mail and Calendar applications have consistently improved from one release to the next. As a relatively new Notes 7 user, I am very impressed with the new features and quality of Mail and Calendar.

Here's what I am really saying to people who dislike Notes: Grow up please. You may have preferred the mail application you used in your last job. You may have a dozen small complaints about how Notes works. But don't say Notes sucks and recommend throwing it out. That's like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Chances are your IT department has many good reasons for sticking with Notes. Have you asked what those reasons are?

** I mean viral in a good way. In the early days, small groups in large companies used Notes to solve real business problems they couldn't otherwise tackle. At first, this drove central IT departments crazy. Eventually, the IT departments understood the business justification and adopted Notes themselves.


Brian said...

I've used both Notes/Domino and Outlook/Exchange extensively. My experience has been that when you've used either for long enough, you'll find things you love and things you hate. If we're just talking about Mail and Calendaring, you'll find plenty of warts in both products. The perception is that Outlook has a more "standard" user interface, but only because MSFT got to write many of the rules on what makes a "standard" user interface. So for many Windows users, the Notes mail interface is foreign. But the folks who developed Notes (yes, I'm proud to have been one of them too) were always caught between a rock and a hard place--the desire to enhance the Notes interface and loyalty to the many existing users who had become familiar with the existing interface. I've never seen a company be so steadfast in maintaining compatibility between releases. This includes the user interface. I think the Notes designers have done a great job walking that fine line. I can't say the same for MSFT.

I once read a comment that went something like: "Notes is like someone's bad dream of what the Web should be". Well, Notes significantly predated the Web and still provides better security and services such as built-in replication that the Web can't match. There still is no existing app dev environment that allows you to so easily build applications that leverage these types of services as Notes/Domino does.

Bob said...


I was compelled to write a blog post as a response to your post. I think you raise some interesting points but I have a somewhat different take from yours.

Jeff Atwood said...

It's nice that the developers that worked on Lotus Notes liked it -- but I'd rather hear some opinions from, you know, actual unbiased users.

Bob said...

Related to Brian's comment:

"I've never seen a company be so steadfast in maintaining compatibility between releases. This includes the user interface. I think the Notes designers have done a great job walking that fine line. I can't say the same for MSFT."

To play devil's advocate, maybe this steadfast compatibility of UI is part of the problem, at least from the perspective of a Notes Mail and Calendar user.

Look at what's happening with Office 12. It's a major UI rethink. Will Hannover offer a similar rethink of Notes client UI? Certainly not if it has to retain compatibility of UI. All of the old cruft like the Workspace icon grid, Notes menu layout, wacky little twisties, etc. will still need to be there.

Ben Poole said...

Look at what's happening with Office 12. It's a major UI rethink

It's a major bleedin' mess is what it is! Urgh, all those blue washy gradients and stacked "bars". What were they thinking??

As for Hannover, yep, from what's been disclosed so far, it's a significant departure from the current Notes UI.

m@ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
m@ said...

"I don't think Notes or Microsoft ever got this right."

Sorry. I have to take that back. Notes template programming gives you almost complete control over the look and feel of an application. There are however aspects of the Notes UI that you cannot customize such as dialogs and tab navigation. Hopefully Hannover will address this ;-)

Matt Rodkey said...

I work for IBM, and use Notes every day. The one thing that I would change (and in fact this drive me nuts), is that Notes is not multi-threaded when it comes to network access. If I am trying to access a slow remote database, I have to wait for that transaction to complete in order to work with my mail.

That annoyance alone makes working with even the most recent feature packed version of notes feel like a 15 year old program.

Matt Rodkey said...

I should ammend to my previous comment, that I do really like the Notes platform when it comes to collaboration, replication, and security.

I am sure there is a logical reason for the seemingly single-threaded nature of the application.

Dave Delay said...

Jeff wrote:

It's nice that the developers that worked on Lotus Notes liked it -- but I'd rather hear some opinions from, you know, actual unbiased users.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as an unbiased user. We all have our biases. There are some folks responding to Ed Brill's blog who feel the same way I do. Reader's of Ed's blog tend to be Notes business partners or other big Notes fans.

m@ said...

Updating comment because of poor spelling, Thanks Jay.


Eclipse faced a similar problem with the new look and feel that was introduced in 3.0. There was quite a bit of negative feedback on the new look when it was introduced to a milestone build. The Eclipse team was forced to pull some aspects of the new look out and support an alternative look and feel that looked very much like it did in version 2.1.

Supporting multiple look and feels was actually a big win for the Eclipse RCP platform. In supporting two look and feels out of the box it also provided a public API to allow RCP developers the ability to "skin" the workbench. Unfortunately implementing a new skin for Eclipse is far from trivial.

My point is that it can be beneficial for applications to provide UI modes that are familiar for legacy users, alternative UI modes that push on innovative ideas, and the ability to build custom UI modes. I don't think Notes or Microsoft ever got this right. Mozilla/Firefox is close and Eclipse RCP ... (while this may be biased) ... almost nailed it.

Anonymous said...

"...but when people complain about Notes, they are usually not talking about core Notes at all. They are talking about the Notes Mail and Calendar applications...."

I am an end-user of Notes which means I do not give a flying fck what the 'core' is, what the 'core' means. Core my ass, I mean if developers get wet dreams about Notes's backend functionality, that has no bearing on us 100 million or so end-users. We use the GUI - The GUI is our window into the system. As far as we are concerned the GUI is the system. And boyo... is the GUI client a heap of stinking ill-conceived, non-intuitive rubbish.

I am not biased, but I recommend companies stick to Outlook. I don't care much for Microsoft either, but their product is far superior to this pile of steaming faeces.

Dave Delay said...

Anonymous ranted:

I am an end-user of Notes ... Core my ass ... that has no bearing on us 100 million or so end-users. We use the GUI.

Trust me. The core matters to your company's business. If it didn't, you would already be using Outlook to read your mail -- partly because Microsoft gives Outlook away with every Office license. In my opinion, this Outlook vs. Notes debate is nonsense. They are two very different types of applications.

None of that is to say IBM should not improve the Notes Mail UI. As I said before, they should and they have. But the UI is not the whole story -- not by a long shot.

By the way, please be civil when posting to my blog. I want to provide a forum for all sides of the argument, but not for insults and border-line profanity. I can't edit your posts, but I can delete them.

directorblue said...

I'll grant you some of your points, but...

When first exposed to Notes at P&G, I was, frankly, horrified. Its user interface was inscrutable, its windowing conventions *ahem* one-of-a-kind, its programming model (16-bit C API) apparently invented by an avowed sadist, and while Gerry would approve of the tabbed property sheets, I personally found them very difficult to use.

And don't get me started on DSAPI (I had to construct -- on my own -- a suitable header file from multiple helpful sources at Lotus, including Pete).

Good points: scripting language appeared similar to VB (would that the UI was that similar to Windows) and security was indeed quite good for its time.

I don't know where the 120MM figure comes from, but P&G reportedly is migrating their 150K (?) users to Exchange and I don't think they're unique.

Notes is dead. Long live Notes.

Congrats on the mention!

Righteous Bubba said...

I'm an end user. Notes is far and away the worst e-mail system I've ever used...which is what I use it for, along with calendaring (also terrible, but not the worst). I'm not a developer, but I'm geeky enough to have used and enjoyed, you know, PINE and found it less frustrating. I have met nobody apart from people who work with the guts of Notes who would ever find a use for it in any other aspect of their lives. It costs businesses money when simple things cause more work.

Most of the problems I have with Notes may have to do with how it's set up in our particular instance, and if that's the case, it's a testament to how awful the back-end must be to deal with. Every other use for Notes that I've dealt with in our system has some mysterious, unpleasant or unuseful aspect to it, so I pay no attention whatsoever to them and look for ways around dealing with them.

Daron Lawing said...

I'm a Notes end user. I just got Outlook on my home computer. I've used Notes for 8 years and Outlook for a few weeks. It seems to me the people who hate Notes are avowed Microsoft kool-aid drinkers. At least the ones who hate it enough to write the kind of things the Anonymous gutless wonder above who couldn't even leave his name) user wrote. I get my email through Notes and I send email through Notes. What's the big deal? Outlook looks like ti does the same thing. For me the fact that I hit this button, the machine in front of me comes to life, and images appear on the screen then I type on this keyboard and my brother in North Carolina can get a message from me in a matter of minutes is frankly a total miracle... you geeks need to lighten up and be in awe and wonder about both Outlook and Notes ;)

Anonymous said...

Apart from the uniques UI of Notes Mail, the other thing that always bothered me was connecing to databases. As an end user that was a real pain. It an antique piece of software. Seems old compared to Outlook. Also setup is difficult. Plus no webmail support, like outlook/exchange. That is such a useful feature...

Anonymous said...

I work with Lotus notes on daily basis and with MS outlook at the client site about 2-3 months/year. Guess what, Lotus
Notes DOES SUCK! I do not see any reason for any email program (yes, email, since I use it only for email) to a) consume tons of system resources and be really slow; b) do not have multitasking in replication, c) be a pain when working with attachments, d) have a crappy calendar interface.... I can go on an on. Conclusion: if or when I am looking for a new job, I will give preference to a company with MS Outlook, and I am only half-joking

Anonymous said...

I am beginning to think Lotus Notes is on e of the reasons the United States is falling behind in productivity to foreign nations

earl507 said...

Funny you mention the job thing, I actually had a job offer where I knew about notes being installed and it made me delay my decision. While I can appreciate the collaboration aspects of notes, it is bad as an email client and most users will use calendaring and email for 90 percent of their notes interaction. My severe dislike is mainly due to a clunky interface. I am sorry, but if it takes 3 or 4 clicks to do what can be accomplished in 1 with outlook then I will take outlook because time is money to me as a developer. (Why are forward, reply, and reply to all dropdowns...of course I want history and attachments. If you really want to give me the option, have it in preferences or buried in some menu) Also, not having the outlook 03 style of email notifications is a waste of time because I have to go back to notes for every email unless I just decide to ignore all of them (which I now do). Sametime integration is nice, but as a user I could have the same benefit with all of my teammates on yahoo plus I would be able to store histories of conversations. No flag for followup without filling out a bunch or extra details. Also, lack of a realtime spell-checker like word is a nightmare for productivity. The list goes on. I realize that I am talking about a few second here and there, but it all adds up. If you loose say 5 minutes of productivity per day which I easily do, that is the equivalent of 5 days of lost productivity per year. No product can justify a loss of productivity like that when talking about hundreds or thousands of users.
There are other products out there for collaboration and it is a bad practice to integrate too heavily into a proprietary platform like domino/notes since moving off of it becomes horribly expensive which is also why there are still 120 million users. 119 want to leave but can't because it would cost millions to move all of those custom databases to a real development platform. In this day and age, companies should be looking at interoperable platforms and domino/notes does not fit that bill.

Brendan said...

"I'm not sure there is such a thing as an unbiased user."

You're right. I'm an unbiased user because I have to use Notes on a daily basis, and it drives me crazy.

Enough of the defenses of "core Notes". I'm sure "core Notes" is great. But the logical conclusion of this argument is that companies should use Notes for collaborative databases and RAD, and some other system for email and calendaring. I wish mine did; I'd spend less of my time at work infuriated by an embarassingly poor UI. Genuinely, and with no exaggeration, I would take a £1000 reduction of my salary to take an identical job that doesn't use Lotus Notes for email and calendaring. I'm certainly not a follower of MS, but I'd take Outlook over Notes email/calendar in an instant.

Why do you think so many people have such angry opinions about Notes? It's because Notes makes them angry. Lotus Notes makes the every-day lives of millions of people less pleasant.

Quote from a Notes sys-admin yesterday: "I think we've pushed this platform as far as we can". I think the only reason so many companies continue to use the product is that they have so much data tied in.

JamesIsIn said...

I have for the first time entered a Notes workplace.

I have over the years spoken with friends about Notes and found myself thinking "that's odd" when they would mention things they could not do (in mail usually).

When I started working with Notes I was stunned by the archaic look and feel of the interface. But the archaic nature of things did not stop at the look and feel. Many of the functions behaved in ways that also seemed from another era. And they completely lacked that sexy retro appeal of, say, a turntable.

Since our IMAP servers are turned on I have moved over to using Thunderbird (with the Lightning extension) for e-mail and calendaring (I still have to open Notes from time to time if I get a calendar item to add it to my Notes calendar, but unlike Outlook Thunderbird does not damage the caledar e-mail).

Why do we use Notes? It is mandated by corporate. Our division has no use for it. Anyone here with any computer savvy has turned to one client or another to replace the Notes interface. All of our IT folks, myself included, would prefer to migrate to just about any other back end (than Domino) to get away from the Domino/Notes license.

I grant that it MAY be a fine collaberative tool. However, IBM may want to consider creating an extension for Thunderbird to allow better integration between Notes and Thunderbird/Lightning. They have already created an extension for Trillian (where I run SameTime, thankfully).

I really do dread ever having to open Notes itself (it's been about a month). Just compare the difference in searching messages in Thunderbird and Notes. In Thunderbird as you type your search terms Thunderbird is actively filtering down your messages. In Notes it's, well, you may as well walk to an old card catalog. Oh, but card catalogs are sexy like turntables. Yeah, there really is nothing like Notes.

Right now there are those who hate Notes (mostly end users who are forced, gun-to-head, to use it) and those who purportedly love Notes. If IBM were to farm out the e-mail and calendar functions as I suggest above (and as they have already done for the chat functions)--and maybe there is a better term for it than farming out--they would be able to eliminate most of those in the former category. Then there would be those who love Notes (or at least claim to) and those who really don't care.

Michael said...

I know this makes us dinosaurs, but our business uses a Lotus 123 spreadsheet to schedule and tally employees and clients. Are there any Lotus experts out there who can help us fine tune and idiot proof our application? If they were in the Los Angeles area that would be even better.

I can be reached at

Michael Schwartz

Anonymous said...

OK, so it's better than anything before sliced bread - I'll give you that. But sliced bread was invented a loooooooong time ago. And it's not better than anything invented after sliced bread. Lotus Notes sucks. It still sucks, and not in my wildest dreams will I ever believe there will come a day when Lotus Notes does not suck.

Anonymous said...

I have used Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for several years and Lotus Domino/Notes for several years. Like 99% of the users I hate the way Lotus Notes makes every day work less productive. I am a typical user at a company with thousands of Lotus Notes seats. The FACT is that 95% of my day is spent using mail and calendaring. Only 5% is spent on “core value” stuff these zealots talk about.

For TWO LONG YEARS I have been reading that Hannover and Lotus Notes 8 is going to fix GUI so that the “core collaboration value” is there but now Lotus Notes will be easy to use. About two weeks ago I got Lotus Notes 8 software installed on my PC. All I can say is too little too late. What has IBM not been doing for the last two years. I heard it was going to be a face lift but a more appropriate description would be painting lip stick on a pig.

There are some minor superficial improvements but every where you turn the arcane look and functionality shows through the lip stick. Sure you can use CTRL + mouse click to select emails in a more Windows standard fashion. Of course the Notes Administrators are arguing that we need to turn the non-standard galley selection back on to preserve “core value.” Sounds like all of these Notes zealots attend the same school of word spin.

As I said though there are some “minor” improvements. However, the VAST MAJORITY of Notes still works the same. For example, look at calendaring. Let’s say you create “in Notes terms” an event and then decide that you want to invite some other people to attend the meeting. You still have the old Lotus Notes at work behind the lip stick mucking with your productivity. You have to copy the event to a meeting, then add the attendees and the then go back and delete the original event. Ah but the screen looks at little prettier because of the lip stick. This arcane functionality has not changed in years.

I could give you a hundred examples of how Lotus Notes 8 still looks and still acts like the same old 1980’s email/calendaring product with lip stick.

Anonymous said...

I didn't develop Lotus Notes as a product, and don't work for IBM.
I think that notes is a fantastic solution for Email and Calendaring, even if you discount the massive usefulness and ease and support of being able to create your own databases.
Some of these post are ridicolous.
There's no 'Standard' way of working in Windows! Each application developed for windows works in a certain way,
e.g. ms products work in a ms way.
ibm products work in an IBM way.

Lotus Notes 7 is the best email and calendaring tool that I've ever used, to be honest all the experience I've had with outlook/outlook express/exchange has been really bad, particulary in the way it handles local emails, constantly popping up pointless prompts asking if I want to send an email, no thanks...nice scheduled replication for me..
People that hate it never give it a change and are addicted to microsoft - and don't appreciate the benefits of the product.

Anonymous said...

ding ding : I'll chime in on the side of the Notes 'lovers', for the most part.

Have to first wonder aloud at the many comments about a lack of multi-threading ... has no one ever enabled background replication?

On the downside - yes certainly the Notes client is a resource bear. No dispute there.

However, the ultimate uptic is the inherent, unbeatable, security of the platform and truly the development environment is the best.

I've seen no one mention that the client side can mostly be avoided ... DWA for mail and all Dominotes applications can be - very - simply web enabled. Doesw anyone *not* have IE or NS or FF (etc. etc. etc.) at their fingertips?

No I do not work for IBM - Yes, I've been a Notes user ( and developer and admin ) for more than a decade already - having been dragged mostly kicking and screaming from the cc:Mail world.

Glad it happened.

Anonymous said...

I've used every kind of mail user agent you can think of from telnetting into SMTP, POP3 and IMAP servers to UNIX CLI based types like mutt and pine, every Windows mail client out there for every version of windows and the majority of GUI user agents for Linux/BSD/Solaris (those worth using)... And then I've used Lotus Notes (for around 10 years - every weekday). I'm no noobie to it. Neither are the other people I work with who also use it on a daily basis, some not so technically minded. Some gurus like me so I think I've got some experience in this field. From an end user's perspective, Lotus Notes truely does suck.

I hate people complaining about programs I've written/helped write but I try keep in mind, they're not complaining to be pains in the butt but because they have genuine issues with the app (which has genuine issues).

To the end user, LN has got to be THE MOST unituitive, confusing, irritating, buggy, annoyingly crappy mail client I've ever had the misfortune of being forced to use. From it's own terminology, confusing icons, cryptic error messages, non standard toolbars, tabs that open by themselves etc.

I think a setup of tin cans and pieces of string would work better than Lotus Notes.


Anonymous said...

When I started working with Lotus Notes over ten years ago, I had plenty of doubts, but everything I have learned about the product has increased my respect for it. It borders on my being in awe of its capabilities.

The problems companies have with user buy-in to Notes are caused by poor or halfhearted implementation and inadequate (nonexistent?) training. Users need to know how Notes works and what it can do for them, whether in mail or in the infinite other collaboration possibilities. If a company doesn't take full advantage of its capablilties, then, yes, it's not going to prove its worth.

On the other side of things, I have spent the last three months trying to learn to love SharePoint, or to at least respect it. Unfortunately, in this case, the more deeply I delve into Sharepoint, the more horrific it becomes. I can't imagine a worse interface design (is the link I'm looking for a tab on the top, a link on the left, right, bottom, somewhere in the middle of the page; do I have to hover over something to find it; am I even on the right page?). The back-end is just as bad - a complete mishmash of server and database connections that is inscrutable even to the experts who set them up.
What a mess things are going to be for companies after this unmanageable platform has grown and metastasized over the next several years.

江南小村 said...

As a Lotus Notes developer, I have to say that Lotus Notes really sucks, it doesn't belong to this century, even Lotus Notes R8.x.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about all the other stuff Lotus can do but as an end user only using it for email/calendar I'm not very happy with the application. Maybe if I'd never used e-mail before I would be impressed.