What is Lotus Notes? How IT becomes legacy

Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino were a juggernaut in mid-1990s IT. Some people loved it. Most people put up with it. And then people quit talking about it and thinking about it, even though almost every organization still has Notes running somewhere. But what is Lotus Notes, and why did it fade from consciousness?

Lotus Notes was a popular software platform for e-mail, calendaring and collaboration in the 1990s. It was programmable and extensible, so many Notes shops created custom applications with it that became business critical. IBM bought it in 1995 for $3.5 billion, but couldn’t keep up with Microsoft’s marketing and the ecosystem that built up around it so it lost market share to Exchange. IBM sold Notes and Domino, its server component, in 2018 to Indian firm HCL for $1.8 billion.

Lotus Notes’ appeal

What is Lotus Notes
What is Lotus Notes? In this screenshot, it’s working as a e-mail client. But it was designed to be much more than that, which made it very popular in the mid 90s, but it missed the boat on mobile computing and that made it lose ground to Microsoft Exchange.

Lotus Notes may be one of the most misunderstood applications of all time. Notes was a client-server application. Notes was the client and Domino was the server.

I explain Notes and Domino like this. Everything people do with Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint, I was doing with Notes at my first job. And we were doing it all in the mid 90s, before Exchange or Sharepoint even existed and Microsoft was still struggling to get Windows right. I still think it was a better collaboration and workflow application than Sharepoint ever was. And by adding additional server components, you could make it do even more.

On top of that, it was a rapid development environment. Rather than using traditional programming languages for application development, you could build custom applications within Notes using the Domino Designer client. Or sometimes just the built-in scripting language built into Notes itself was powerful enough.

This is one reason Notes sticks around today even in shops that long since migrated to Exchange or something else for calendaring and e-mail. They have custom applications written in Notes that are business critical and may date back to the 1990s and whoever wrote them is probably long gone. Reimplementing these custom applications in something else is frequently costly and difficult. All of my experience with Notes this decade has been due to this.

How we used Lotus Notes

We used Notes as our e-mail and calendar platform first and foremost, and it was a fine e-mail platform. The server was robust and quick. Most importantly, you could leave me in charge of it for a week while the main e-mail administrator was away and nothing bad would happen. The nightmares of administering Exchange that turned out to be Microsoft’s biggest selling point for Office 365 were completely alien to us at my first job. We faced considerable pressure to move to Exchange because Palm Pilots worked a lot better with Exchange and Outlook. But in our minds, it was a step backwards. Why switch to something less capable and a million times less reliable just so a couple of execs could have a better toy?

I still had a lot to learn back then. It’s the technology that’s good enough, cheap enough, and/or cool enough that wins. And while few people associate Microsoft with coolness today, in the mid 90s, Lotus wasn’t going to match Microsoft’s coolness, or at least the coolness of Microsoft’s ecosystem.

I eventually learned that if I was going to say no, I’d better move to security. Because IT departments who say no habitually get steamrolled. IT departments don’t get paid to pick the best technology. They get paid to keep what everyone else wants working.

The biggest problem I can see with Lotus Notes is that it didn’t work as well with mobile devices at the onset. Or at least it had the perception that it didn’t work with Palm Pilots and Blackberry devices. And that put more than one IT department behind the eight ball.

Who was Lotus?

Today we normally think of Lotus as the maker of a spreadsheet for DOS. For a decade or perhaps even a little more, Lotus 1-2-3 was a major reason why people bought IBM PCs. Modern, PC-centric IT got its start thanks to Lotus 1-2-3. Accountants would buy PCs to run Lotus 1-2-3, and PCs slowly spread from the accounting department to other parts of the company. If the accounting department seems to have a special relationship with the IT department in your company, that has something to do with it.

Lotus was a bit slow to get Lotus 1-2-3 running on Windows partly because they had a second act in the works. That second act was Lotus Notes. It was the brainchild of Ray Ozzie, who went on to develop Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. Notes was based on a system he used in college, and it sought to integrate everything you did with a computer in a different way than just picking up files from something like the Windows File Manager or Windows Explorer would. It made sharing and collaboration easy, and it integrated nicely with office suites, including Microsoft Office.

Lotus Notes was revolutionary for its time. And that was the main reason IBM bought Lotus in 1995 for $3.5 billion.

Enter IBM

In the 90s, IBM was the stodgy old computer company that was the opposite of cool. Its PCs were boring and beige and unimaginative. Worse yet, they were super proprietary. At least its ill-fated PS/2 line was, and even though IBM was reforming under Lou Gerstner to be less Hotel California-ish, IBM was struggling to shake that image.

The bigger problem was that IBM had no idea how to market anything. They had good engineering, but they relied on that reputation to sell their stuff. In the 1980s, the mantra in business computing was that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. And in the 90s, IBM was still trying to ride that. In a mid 90s editorial in PC/Computing magazine, the late Paul Somerson said if IBM had invented sushi, it would have marketed it as raw dead fish, then wondered why no one would buy it.

Would Lotus, flush with IBM cash, become a juggernaut? Or would it just become another stodgy IBM product?

I think most would agree it became more of the latter. IBM eventually renamed the product to IBM Notes, but since it was known as Lotus Notes for more than two decades, many people still call it that.

What is Lotus Notes, and why didn’t it thrive?

IBM made some changes to try to survive, including making Domino integrate nicely with Microsoft Outlook for people who prefer the Outlook user interface over the native Notes client. This probably saved Domino in some environments. It came too late for the shop where I worked. And in some companies it may have hastened an exit. Why not switch to Exchange if you’re already using Outlook?

Domino did work with Blackberry, which was the killer app I saw for Exchange at the dawn of the 21st century. I don’t know how many people knew that. And I don’t know how early it worked with Blackberry.

A lot of people hate Notes today because it’s an unfamiliar technology supporting niche apps they wish would go away. This illustrates why I liked Notes though. It can run for years without proper care and maintenance. Most IT systems aren’t like that at all.

In December 2018, IBM pulled the plug, selling Notes and Domino to an Indian firm for $1.8 billion. The move surprised some people. Many may have been surprised because it had been the first time they’d thought of Notes and Domino for years.

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