Sunday, May 6, 2007

Connecting to an IBM Lotus Domino Server with Outlook 2003

I recently started a new job at an organisation that uses IBM Lotus Notes/Domino for their enterprise collaboration. As a person who has always used and relied on Microsoft Outlook, I have been finding the transition extremely difficult. The Lotus Notes client is lacking in a lot of areas that I have taken for granted in Outlook. It's not user friendly, not intuitive, and generally requires a lot more effort to perform a task than it would in Outlook. Rather than use standard windows controls (scroll bars, text boxes, buttons etc), IBM seems to have found the need to write their own. Of course this has the end result that none of the standard navigation and shortcut keys that we are all used to work. In fact, there was even a password field that showed my password in plain text rather than masking it as I typed!

Now, we are using version 6.x which it has been around since 2004. I know that version 7 is out, with 8 on the horizon. But I can't help thinking that even for its time, version 6 is very backwards. It looks, feels and behaves like a Windows 3.1 application. Considering Outlook 2003 was out a year before Notes 6 was released, I would have expected a little more.

Thankfully, all is not lost. I decided to browse the Microsoft downloads page, and see if there was anything available that would ease my transition into this new role. Much to my surprise, I found that Microsoft do indeed have a plug-in that connects Outlook 2002/2003 to a Domino server! I like to think that Microsoft feel sorry for guys like me, and wrote this plug-in to make our lives a little easier. In reality, it's probably more to assist organisations when migrating from Notes/Domino to Exchange/Outlook.

The restrictions are that you must be using Outlook 2002/2003 (a 2007 version of the plug-in does not seem to be available), and the server must be running Domino 5 or 6. Not the best news for the staff from my last job that are migrating to Domino 7 soon. Sorry guys.


Ed said...

Notes 6 was actually initially released in September, 2002. The 6.5 release was a point release in terms of features and no change in user interface.

It is fair to say that the Notes interface in the past did not keep up with all the current conventions, though it was a trend-setter in some (F9 is refresh in Outlook 2003).

Notes 8 is designed to significantly improve the user experience, and you are our target type of user. You should check it out through It will ship mid-year 2007.

Ryan said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for the comment.

I would still have to compare Notes 6 with Outlook XP (2002) and say that Notes 6 was way behind in its time. In fact, its even more dissapointing that in the 2 years from 6.0 to 6.5 being released, there were no UI improvements as you say.

But anyway, that's in the past, hopefully, for the common users sake, they have fixed the UI as you say. I won't hold my breath though.

IBM seems fixated on reinventing the wheel. Why not use the UI controls that the OS provides rather than making your own? Why take the user into a land where everything seems foreign to them. The scroll bars don't behave like all the other programs they use, their shortcut keys don't work, their passwords aren't masked in certain fields (wtf is up with that?).

Now I assume they write their own custom controls to make it easier to port code to other operating systems. Thats all well and good, but i'm sure the 99% of an organisations users that are non technical don't care that IBM wants code portability between various operating systems. They just want things to behave.

I'm probably not your target user. I was born and bred as an Exchange admin. I rely heavily on Outlook to manage my time and communciations with other people. I'm not interested in changing the way I do that, which using Notes will force me to do. When IBM has spent anywhere near the amount of money Microsoft have on UI research and design, then you can sign me up for a trial. Until then, my Domino plugin for Outlook will see me through.

In my view, the changes that need to be made to Notes would be so great that it will probably never happen, because doing so would severly break backward compatibility.

If anything, this experience has given me a pretty rock solid understanding of why Exchange and Outlook are the market leaders in Enterprise collaboration. Given the competition, I think they are pretty safe in that position for some time to come.