IBM released the latest version of its Notes/Domino product on 7 September 2005. There are no major structural changes in this release, which has been on public beta testing for 16 months. The observant user organization will find few surprises in it. IBM refers to the 'cadence' of Notes product releases as being roughly every 12 to 16 months, so this release meets the timetable.
The main claims for Version 7 are that it:
- supports more users while employing fewer server resources
- gives more options to developers, such as being able to write Web services applications
- improves user productivity through numerous changes to the clients
- integrates more closely with Microsoft Office 2003
- simplifies administration and reduces time out of action
- offers better integration with Web standards.
There is now the option of using IBM's DB2 relational database as a store for some applications instead of the Notes native file formats.
The server products on offer are Domino server and, for smaller organizations, Domino Express. They can be hosted on:
- IBM eServer iSeries machines and their AS/400 predecessors (Domino Express is not available for either of these)
- eServer zSeries mainframes, under z/OS or Linux (Red Hat, UnitedLinux or SuSE)
- Intel servers running various flavours of Microsoft Windows Server, Windows NT 4 or Linux (as above)
- Machines running IBM AIX or Sun Solaris.
Client choices are:
- IBM Lotus Notes (on Windows-based and Apple Macintosh PCs)
- IBM Workplace Managed Client (on either kind of PC and on Linux)
- IBM Lotus Domino Web Access (Internet Explorer, Mozilla or Firefox)
- IBM Lotus Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook (Windows-based and Apple Macintosh PCs)
- IBM Lotus Domino WebMail (Internet Explorer, Mozilla or Firefox).
Complementary products include IBM Lotus Sametime (for synchronous collaboration), IBM Lotus Web Conferencing, IBM Lotus QuickPlace (for team work-spaces) and IBM Lotus Domino Document Manager (for controlled shared access to documents).
IBM seems genuinely to be trying to make its products more open and more standards compliant. When it bought Notes (and Lotus) in 1995, it inherited a complex, proprietary and unorthodox set of offerings. Its developers first added better e-mail capabilities. They have since been working to make Notes more akin to what IBM, Microsoft Windows and Web developers are used to. Latterly, they have also been integrating Notes with IBM's home-grown and more modern set of Workplace office products, although much needs to be done there.
All the while, IBM has tried to make sure that new releases are backwards compatible where possible. According to Ken Bisconti, Vice President, IBM Workplace, Portal and Collaboration Products, users can open and run applications created with Notes Release 2 in the Notes 7 client.
This latest Notes release refines the user interface, adds more tools for users and developers, and includes more real-time collaboration features. The next release, code-named 'Hannover', was previewed in June this year and is expected to be launched in the first half of 2007. This will include major changes to the user interface, including activity-based working and a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, and will work on Linux desktop computers.
Hard choices for users
IBM now offers existing users of the Notes/Domino products a roadmap for the integration of Notes with its newer Workplace products. The Hannover release should make the path clearer. It will include Workplace features such as 'Unified Activity Management' that will integrate directly into the Notes client. One IBM researcher describes this as bringing collaboration to formal processes while bringing process to ad hoc working.
The main external competition to Notes/Domino is Microsoft's Exchange Server product range. At launch, in 1996, this was a 'spoiler', being little more than an upgraded and renamed version of Microsoft's file-based (and also bought-in) MS Mail software. It is maturing into a powerful and versatile set of collaboration products, although not yet matching Notes/Domino in the number of features it offers. The client software for Exchange comprises Outlook for Windows and older Macs, and Entourage for OS X Macs.
Although the two rivals' product ranges are gradually converging in user capabilities, they remain markedly different in their server architectures and their embrace of open standards. (Exchange runs only on Windows Server, for example.) This is likely to be to IBM's advantage, as it can offer its customers a wider choice of servers and the chance of consolidating them. On the other hand, Microsoft Exchange is an easier fit with Office and other Microsoft products. Also, some users find it easier to use and understand than Notes.
Two market research companies, IDC and Gartner, say that Exchange Server's 2004 sales outstripped those of Notes/Domino, giving the Microsoft product a greater market share. IBM's senior managers are sounding a more upbeat note, as one would expect, with stories of double-digit growth for the past three quarter years.
Whichever statistics one believes, the decision to adopt a competing product or stay with Notes will not be clear-cut. IBM hopes to make it so. In the short term, Version 7 and Hannover will probably be enough to keep most existing users faithful.