John Head isn’t spilling any secrets when he says, “Most people think Lotus Notes is ugly.”

Head is a Notes architect at consulting firm PSC Group LLC in Schaumburg, Ill. More than a few times, he has watched a client — a newly merged company, for instance — wrestle over whether to standardize on IBM’s Notes and Domino or Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook and Exchange for employee e-mail. And, he said, he’s seen the decision come down to the company’s CEO “saying that he doesn’t like the way Notes looks.”

First released in 1989, Notes remains one of the most popular applications worldwide; IBM claimed several years ago that the software had more than 110 million users. But the user interface in Notes has long been maligned for being stuck in the ’80s.

The vitriol that many users feel toward IBM’s e-mail client is often cited as the biggest reason why Outlook was able to pull ahead of Notes in marketshare more than five years ago, without ever looking back.

Earlier this month IBM released the first public beta of its upcoming Notes 8 upgrade, along with a test version of its Domino 8 server counterpart. Acknowledging the criticisms of earlier Notes releases, IBM officials said the company has “re-invented” the user interface from the ground up, adding new features and fully bringing the software into the Web 2.0 era.

“This is not your father’s Notes,” said Ken Bisconti, vice-president of Lotus messaging and collaboration products at IBM. At the same time, he added, one of the long-time strengths of Notes — its legendary backward-compatibility — won’t be compromised.

Major new features include the ability to view and compose files in the Open Document Format for Office Applications directly within Notes.

The upgrade also can detect the online presence of co-workers or friends who are on the instant messaging buddy list of users, enabling them to send IMs from within Notes via IBM’s Sametime software. In addition, Notes 8 can be used to view RSS feeds. The upgrade also includes numerous user interface tweaks, such as the use of colours to denote different e-mail senders, the ability to add contacts by dragging and dropping e-mails, and support for sorting messages by subject threads,

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