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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Intranets may be getting the attention these days but watch out for Lotus Notes


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #369 November 19, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Historians of science love to look at paradigm shifts--those periods when one set of basic assumptions about the way things work is replaced by another, such as when geologists replaced the idea of stable continents with theories of continental drift.

    The computer industry has been in the middle of a paradigm shift, with the Internet and its sibling Intranets replacing earlier ideas about stand-alone computers and networking. Some of the results have included huge amounts of money invested in stock offerings for any company that can use the magic "I" word in its prospectus. At the same time, traditional high tech companies have been scrambling to adapt to the brave new model.

    There's been a lot of attention paid to software giant Microsoft's attempt to come from behind and integrate the Internet into its product line.

    IBM has had its own set of problems coping with this change in fashion. When IBM purchased Lotus Development for US$3.5 billion in July 1995, it was not for its 1-2-3 spreadsheet or WordPro word processor but for Lotus Notes. Notes was the best known example of 'groupware-software,' which enabled groups of employees to share data and collaborate on projects over local or wide-area computer networks. To IBM, Notes seemed like a key product for the next decade.

    But as we've said before, the Internet has changed everything. Almost overnight, Notes seemed like yesterday's product. Powerful, yes. But popular opinion considered it old-fashioned, awkward to use, and expensive. By contrast, Intranets are widely presumed to be based on free, easy-to-use software such as Web browsers.

    There are few things like a US$3.5-billion investment to motivate a company, however. Starting with version 4.0, IBM/Lotus has made major changes to Notes. It's still powerful, and can provide a complete environment for Notes users. Without leaving Notes, users can view documents, explore data across the corporate network, send, receive, and file e-mail, participate in on-line discussions, and run standard and customized applications. And like an Intranet, Notes can link users running Macs and PCs, Windows, OS/2, and Unix. It also carries an attractive, user-friendly interface, and IBM has made it much more affordable.

    Not only that, Notes now has Internet capability. It's a capable Web browser in its own right. Notes users can seamlessly integrate links to the Web alongside links to their company's Notes data in e-mail or other documents. And built into the newest version of Notes, 4.5, will be a real Web server, code-named 'Domino,' making it easy for companies with Notes-based data to publish it on the Web. It even supports Netscape plug-ins and Java applets. But it's not just another Web server: it adds all of Notes' built-in features--security, a powerful development environment, and software agents. (Domino is available now, for a free download, as an add-on to Notes 4.0 or later version. Check http://domino.lotus.com.)

    Two of the built-in agents in Notes 4.5 simplify Web browsing: PageMinder runs in the background, checking Web pages for changes (if a page on your list has been updated, it can automatically retrieve a copy, and notify you by e-mail); WebAhead will download an entire site, allowing you to peruse it at your leisure, off-line.

    Using Notes as a Web server brings along existing Notes features such as threaded discussions and improved security. These can be implemented on standard Intranets, but only with great difficulty. In fact, it often seems like Intranet developers are devoting a lot of time and energy to duplicate features that have been standard in Notes for years.

    Notes is a prepackaged environment, ready to be customized. Merging it with the Web (whether over the public Internet or private Intranets), makes it possible to use the Web for more than just a passive display of information and get some real work done. If you're thinking of adopting Notes, IBM Lotus would like to remind you about SmartSuite: while boasting fewer sales than Microsoft's Office or Corel's Perfect Office suites, this collection of word processor, spreadsheet, and more offers the best built-in links to Notes.

    Maybe IBM's US$3.5-billion purchase has a future, after all.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan