Lotus gears up for Notes/Domino 6 launch

IBM Corp. will take the wraps off version 6 of Lotus Notes and Domino on Tuesday, ushering in the first major upgrade in three years of Lotus’ flagship corporate messaging and infrastructure software.

Lotus’ last major Notes/Domino release, of version 5 in March 1999, trickled out slowly to customers, many of whom resisted upgrading until long after the release. Y2K-related jitters and installation freezes contributed to the lag, but bug reports from early adopters also encouraged a wait-and-see approach.

Notes/Domino 6 – or R6, for “release 6,” in developers’ shorthand – is likely to have a smoother send-off, say analysts, customers and IBM executives, thanks to thorough beta-testing and an array of enhancements, from small look-and-feel tweaks to back-end infrastructure changes that can trim the costs of large enterprise deployments.

Several features in the new software are going to be very attractive to Lotus’ traditional user base of very large, geographically-scattered organizations, noted Ferris Research Inc. analyst Marten Nelson in Nice, France.

At the top of his list of cost-trimming additions is the significantly beefed-up network compression technology built into R6. Anecdotal feedback from beta customers suggests that by speeding up replication and data transfer, the new compression technology can trim companies’ bandwidth costs significantly – up to 30 per cent in some users’ beta deployments, Nelson said.

Also useful for companies supporting a large number of client installations is R6’s “smart upgrade” feature, allowing administrators to push updates and configuration changes out automatically to users, he said.

“In general, from a cost point-of-view, I believe there are features in (R6) that should be very attractive,” Nelson said. “Is it going to fit all organizations? Absolutely not. What I would recommend is, analyze your current costs and project what the areas are that you can save on with R6’s features.”

Most of those features are aimed at reducing the cost of large Notes deployments, but one customer from a smaller company says he still sees enough value in R6 to make upgrading worthwhile for his business.

ClickInvites, an online wedding invitations shop headquartered in Dallas, has less than half a dozen employees, but relies heavily on Lotus for its Web site and infrastructure software. Cofounder Joseph Pollone has been using R6 betas for several months, and said the biggest improvement he sees is the software’s “snappier” feel.

The compression technology for faster replication has been useful, he said, since clickInvites runs off a server in Seattle. The new Domino has also been more stable, he said.

Pollone freelances as a consultant, and one major factor he cited in his decision to upgrade is a desire to work with R6 to keep his skills up to date. But even if consulting weren’t a consideration, he’d probably upgrade clickInvites to R6 even though he expects the move to be a pricey one.

“We’re a small shop; I could exist on Notes 5 as long as I want to,” he said. “But I would probably upgrade just for the snappier feel when I test things.”

There are a handful of Web publishing functionality changes Pollone wishes IBM would have made in the Domino 6 update, but he’s only encountered one major drawback in the new software: The lack of a Macintosh client for Lotus’ Domino Designer development platform. Lotus stopped Mac development on Domino Designer in early 2001, citing scant customer demand.

At the other end of the corporate-size scale, Notes and Web Applications Manager Timothy Day supports more than 3,000 users at Maximus Inc., a Reston, Va. consultancy that serves U.S. government agencies.

Maximus has a maintenance subscription with Lotus, so it will receive the Notes and Domino 6 upgrades at no cost. Day has been using the beta software for several months, and said Maximus will roll out R6 company-wide after a few more months of testing.

He’s also a fan of the new compression technology – “we have a lot of road warriors,” he noted – but is most enthusiastic about user-interface tweaks in R6, including new calendar, mail and folder-management features.

“It looks and feels a lot more like a Windows application, and less like a Lotus application,” Day said.

He’s hoping those changes will help win over the conversion stragglers at his company still using Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook or another POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) e-mail client, rather than Notes’ e-mail. Security problems, particularly with Outlook, prompted Maximus’ decision to end POP3 e-mail support next month, he said.

While supporting Maximus’ current software setup, “I find myself saying more and more, ‘That feature’s not in Notes yet, but it will be soon,'” he said.

At Tuesday’s launch event in Cambridge, Mass., Lotus will be featuring testimonials from several “top tier” customers who have been kicking R6’s tires. Conscious of R5’s slow adoption, Lotus is eager to spotlight customers with sizable deployments who can describe their experiences and boost the confidence of those looking to upgrade, said Lotus Chief Executive Officer Al Zollar.

More than any previous release, R6 is hybrid of technology from IBM and from Lotus Development Corp., which IBM acquired in 1995 but left to run fairly autonomously for several years. Last year, Big Blue stepped up its integration of the subsidiary, reorganizing Lotus internally and highlighting Lotus’ role as one of four software brands all built on common infrastructure.

Lotus’ role isn’t building back-end infrastructure software like enterprise databases; its intention is to use IBM’s software underpinnings and build collaborative technology on top, Zollar said.

Those plans have prompted objections from users who fear IBM will force Lotus customers to migrate to its other products, notably its DB2 database and WebSphere application server and middleware software, with which IBM has been increasing Lotus software’s integration. An outcry ensued earlier this year when IBM executives suggested that DB2 will eventually replace the traditional Notes Storage Facility (NSF) data store.

Zollar says such anxiety is overblown.

“It’s a concern that I think is more propagated by people like our competitors,” he said. “Most people don’t realize DB2 is embedded in the document server. You don’t have to go out and hire a DB2 admin. You just install the server and it works.”

Such transparency will be the model, he said.

“We’ll do bundling, hard bundles, soft bundles, embedded technology – we’ll do what makes it easy for the customers,” he said.