Okay, so it’s totally way overdue, but I’ve just gotten back from Lotusphere 2009 and I’m totally pumped up about Lotus Notes.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Lotus Notes, didn’t they go out of business or something? I used that like 10 years ago.” While Lotus Notes was left to languish for a few years, that was a few years ago. The past 3-4 years have been a bit of a renaissance for Lotus Notes.

No program is perfect, but Notes has a few features that are so key for small businesses and entrepreneurs, but unless you work for a company a little smaller in size than IBM you’ve probably not heard about what’s new, what’s cool, and what it will do for your business.

First off, it’s been pretty for the past year or so. This is probably what you remember:

out with the old

out with the old

Here’s what it looks like these days:

...in with the new

...in with the new

The fact that it’s hard to find implementation outside of large companies has little to do with the price. If you are a company of less that 1000 people, which is what IBM frustratingly considers a small business, there is a pricing category called ‘Express Licensing’. An Express Licenses is basically a per-head license. For Notes, it’s approximately $133/head. That per-head license allows you to install Lotus Notes and the Domino server (the Lotus equivalent to Exchange) on as many machines as you want, so long as you only have as many users on the domain as you have licenses.

Now, I mentioned that Domino is the equivalent to the Exchange server… That’s only when looking at it from a client/server relationship. The server itself is so much more than Exchange. If you were to take the standard PIM functionality that Exchange provides, and tack on an entire Rapid Application Development platform, connectors to external databases, Web-Service brokers, COM and CORBA brokers, a built-in HTTP server, fail-over mechanisms, and on, and on. It all comes with the license. If you do want an Enterprise Server license (for unlimited users/usage) you also get real-time clustering. There’s also a very cool new document management system called Quickr which can be added on to the server and Notes Client for ~$50/head. There’s also an Instant Messaging/Whiteboard/Online Meeting server and client called Sametime which bolts into the Domino Server for ~$75/head.

Now, that’s all cool stuff, but probably beyond the means to setup and needs for most small businesses. What’s really cool is the lynchpin of Notes that’s been in it’s feature-set since the beginning. Replication and offline usage.

All of Notes applications (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and any custom apps) can be used without a live connection to the Notes database. Replication is basically the ability for that offline or local database to keep it’s contents in sync with the server whenever there is an active internet connection. While this doesn’t sound impressive as text on the screen, for me –as a mobile professional– if my laptop falls down a flight of stairs or gets stolen, if my content is in a Notes database, I have a backup waiting for me on my server, which I can access over the web until I can get a new copy of Notes installed on a replacement machine. And in the scenario where the laptop is stolen, there is incredible encryption and security that makes it very hard indeed for your loss to be the laughing stock of the tech news:

Another nice bit is that Notes is becoming more and more cross-platform. Domino servers can be installed on Linux and Windows (as well as a few more esoteric techie OSes), and the Notes and Sametime clients are available on Windows, OSX, Linux. Quickr has been the slow boy for cross-platform treatment, but IBM has assured that a Linux server and OSX clients are coming this year. I’ve been pushing hard for Linux clients, and I’ve heard whispers cbd products that it will be done, but IBM’s official stance is “not yet”. That said, it works through Firefox on Linux, so if you wanted to use Quickr on Linux, you could but it won’t be as elegant as it will be when IBM commits to full Linux support.

So for me, –again, a one-man shop, for ~$260, I can get a secure lock-box to store all my companies data and documents which backs itself up on as many machines as I can set up for it to replicate with and access almost all of it’s functionality on the road, and across multiple platforms.

The only drawback, thus far is documentation and learning tools and this is why I think it hasn’t permeated into the small-business universe. There are lots of training applications for End-Users, but in the realm of development, (which is where companies will really grow into the platform developing custom applications to digitize internal workflow and repeatable processes) there’s still not much that’s digestible by smaller companies. What’s cool is that IBM is slowly beginning to get the memo on this, and is becoming more and more responsive to persistent folk like myself. I am now in the midst of conversations with internal IBMers about what can be done to bridge this gap. When you throw in projects like the Lotus Foundations Server you can buy a pre-configured box which can also manage resources on your local network.

There’s so much more to be said, but maybe now I’ll start getting some respect when I go on about how kewl Notes is.
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