Lotus Notes: Steam Engine or Hyperdrive?

By Nigel Cheshire

Here in my little home town, we celebrated this past holiday weekend with a carnival parade. Participating in the parade was a 1902 Stanley Steamer - a beautifully refurbished, steam powered car (and nothing to do with the carpet cleaning company of the same name). I got chatting with the owners, who told me some interesting factoids about the car. They said that the boiler was heated using kerosene (aka paraffin), but the car needed a lot more stops for water than for gas, doing only about 1-2 miles per gallon of water. They also told me that they'd had brakes made and fitted after a near miss with a small child - previously the only way to stop the car was to jam it into reverse gear!

This was all very fascinating, but the thing that really gave me pause for thought was when the owner made an interesting assertion. She said that, if just half the R&D resources that have gone into developing the internal combustion engine had been spent on improving the steam engine, we'd all be driving around in steam cars today.

That may or may not be true, but it got me to thinking about the way that technology develops and the extent to which we are working in a fashion industry. Are all technology decisions based on merit, or does emotion play a bigger role? What drives technology trends, and in particular why is Lotus Notes often considered to be the red headed stepchild of the software industry?

I've heard and read so many arguments about why IBM Lotus Notes & Domino is technically superior to its competitors (especially the Microsoft variety) and yet a significant proportion of our customers are involved in projects to migrate off of the Notes/Domino platform. And while Notes & Domino may not make Sharepoint look like a steam engine in comparison to hyperdrive, it does seem hard to find a good technical argument in favor of switching. "Ah yes," people will say. "We got a new CIO who's a Microsoft guy. There's no technical reason to support the move, we're just doing it because he wants us to." It almost seems that Notes, like the platform sole and the kipper tie, has just gone out of fashion.

Some technology, of course, is consigned to the (virtual or physical) scrapheap because it is actually no longer useful. The 9600 baud modem, for example. The golfball typewriter. The Sony Walkman cassette player. These items are all based on technologies that have been leapfrogged and replaced with something better.

Some technology started out looking promising, but just never crossed the chasm. I'm looking at the Apple Newton MessagePad lurking at the bottom of my desk drawer. And never mind Betamax, did anyone actually ever buy a Laserdisc player?

Lotus Notes doesn't fit either of those categories. It certainly crossed the chasm, allegedly peaking at more than 120 million users. (In fact, the person who coined that phrase, Geoffrey Moore, was the keynote speaker at the first ever Lotusphere in 1993.) And, as far as leapfrogging, last time I checked, the world was still using email, workflow applications and especially document based, NOSQL databases.

Despite all that, there's no doubt that Notes/Domino has lost significant amounts of market share, mostly to Microsoft. You could argue that that all started in 2003 with the introduction of IBM Workplace and the infamous "two-lane highway." But Forbes magazine famously declared Notes down-and-out all the way back in 1998, in its article The Decline and Fall of Lotus.

Some would also argue that IBM failed to invest enough into updating the user interface of the Notes client. Eight years after the Forbes article was published, in 2006, UK newspaper The Guardian was marveling at how Notes was thriving, despite almost all its users appearing to hate it - largely based on the UI.

Fast forward another 12 years to today, and there are still plenty of Notes & Domino applications in use. I think you'd be hard pressed to find many new apps being built on the platform, but there are plenty still being maintained. And a new major release of the platform is, of course, scheduled for October of this year.

Here at Teamstudio, we have thousands of customers in more than 60 countries. Overall, they split pretty evenly between those who are committed to the platform, and are continuing to support applications on it, and those who are involved in migrations to pastures new.  We've adapted our product set to accommodate both constituencies, continuing to invest in our suite of traditional developer tools for Notes (Edition 33 will ship this year!), as well as introducing new tools to help move off of the platform.

Like the debate about the merits of steam transportation, some people defend their position with an almost religious fervour, arguing that one platform or another is technically superior.  We do our best to stay independent, and support all our customers no matter where they fall in the debate.

Whatever your position, if you have Notes/Domino applications, we can probably help. To find out more, or if you just want to tell us what you think, click below. We're always happy to chat!

POSTSCRIPT: If you're interested in automotive technology (I am) and you don't know much about steam cars (I didn't), you might enjoy this episode of Jay Leno's Garage!