SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - Officially, the term groupware applies to software that businesses can use to promote collaboration; in the real world, it tends to mean "e-mail plus scheduling." The name Lotus Notes was virtually synonymous with groupware a few years back, but the program wasn't available for the Macintosh. After several twists and turns following IBM Corp.'s acquisition of Lotus Development Corp., Notes landed on the Mac, first as a Release 4.6 and now as a Release 5 (R5) client. (The corresponding Domino server is still primarily a Unix and Windows product.) The Mac version does an excellent but idiosyncratic job of handling e-mail and scheduling; it even functions as a Web browser.
The Mac client is available in two slightly different versions. Notes for Collaboration is used on both remote servers in general and Domino R5Ðbased servers, so it supports database features specific to Domino. Notes for Messaging offers many impressive collaboration functions (including group scheduling over the Web) but lacks Domino-specific functions.
Open for Business
The basic architecture of Notes was developed before the rise of the Internet and the appearance of Web browsers, so it's not derived from Mosaic, as other Web browsers are. But the original programmers had the luxury of really thinking through what works and what doesn't in the way of business e-mail and scheduling. Notes lets you combine all your e-mail sources in a single in-box, works with all Internet e-mail protocols, and implements more and better security features than Microsoft Outlook and Netscape Communicator. Notes' e-mail component also sports a cool "soft" Trash function, a lifesaving feature that lets you recover deleted mail during a specified calendar interval. When you install Notes, it reads your Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator bookmarks and makes them available through icons on Notes' Welcome page (which you can customize with news headlines, stock quotes, and other Web components).
The scheduling functions support networkwide time management for interactive group calendars; detailed task prioritization; alarms; and total integration with to-do lists, contact lists, and Web elements such as bookmarks, images, and links. If you talk to users, you'll hear lots of enthusiasm for and loyalty to the program's scheduling features; when compared with online scheduling software, Notes really stands out.
Compared with other products at this level of complexity, Notes offers nearly effortless installation (it takes about 15 minutes). The client installer simply asks what connections you have (Domino server, standard ISP, or other remote connection) and ferrets out all other pertinent e-mail and Web information on its own. Installing the Domino R5 server software is another matter. We tested it on a Windows NT 4.0 Intel-based workstation, and installation was a serious matter requiring attention to dozens of settings; your business will need someone with a solid systems-administration background to install and maintain the Domino server. And whereas the client manual is thorough but easy to read, the server manual is stronger stuff.
The Macintosh client is quite a bit slower than its Windows equivalent on comparable hardware. It also displays two of the problems characteristic of software ported to the Mac from Windows code. First are the "mystery hangs"-when you log off of your remote online connection, the system crashes about one time out of six. Second are the memory-management problems. If you click on the icon for Internet Explorer during a session, you can't recover the memory used simply by closing that window. To be fair, the problem of not recognizing free memory when a function is closed is probably Microsoft's fault, since it happens in Office as well. Still, if Lotus puts an Internet Explorer icon on Notes' Welcome page, it should make sure it works.
Also, strangely, the labels for items on the Welcome screen are sometimes missing letters, so that Mail appears as ai and Calendar appears as Ca endar.
Finally, one minor interface complaint stems from Notes' long pre-Web history: what Mac user would expect the icon you click on to get your e-mail to be labeled not Mail but Replicator?
The Competitive Landscape
Realistically, there are no alternatives to Notes in its class. There are other schedulers, but none provide comparable flexibility and cross-network viewability to all groups. And there are other e-mail systems, of course, but compared with Notes, they're awkward and short on features. If Microsoft keeps adding Notes-style features to Outlook, Notes' nearest competitor as far as e-mail is concerned, Outlook 6 might be competitive with Notes R4.6, but it won't catch up to Notes R5 anytime soon. When Office 2000 hits the Mac, you could do some VisualBasic programming to implement a few Notes-like group-scheduling features, but very few PC users have successfully implemented groupware in Office.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If you need to coordinate communication and activities across several groups or offices, Lotus Notes Release 5 is superior to all other products currently available. The only wrinkle for Mac users is that some of Notes' features require that an IT professional implement the $1,795 Domino server software on a non-Mac platform. For businesses large enough to have systems administrators, the power of Notes justifies the price.
RATING: 4.0 mice
PROS: Great options for handling e-mail; flexible group-scheduling features.
CONS: Macintosh version needs platform-specific refinement.
COMPANY: Lotus Development (800/343-5414, http://www.lotus.com).
LIST PRICE: Notes for Messaging, $55; Notes for Collaboration, $69.