Alas, poor Lotus/IBM Notes, we knew ye well

Lotus (and then IBM) Notes was way ahead of its time -- it was enterprise software before enterprise software was cool. As ownership transfers to HCL, we reflect back on all Notes meant to a generation of IT professionals.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Every year, in January, the Notes and Domino faithful made the annual pilgrimage to Orlando and the Dolphin Hotel. To Notes professionals, this is hallowed ground. (Image: David Gewirtz)

Although most folks today don't know, Lotus Notes was ahead of its time. It was inspired by the Plato Notes messaging system of the 1970s, developed as an early collaboration system in the early 1980s, and sold to IBM in the mid-1990s.

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Now, after a long and somewhat misunderstood life, Notes and its partner product, Domino, have been sold to India-based integrator HCL.

Although I never actually used Notes at the enterprise level, I owe much (probably the majority) of my income from the early 1990s to the late 2000s to Notes and Domino. You see, companies relied on these two products. They were transformative.

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Notes came first. It mixed email with databases with insanely secure data replication and custom apps. Domino came later, adding server-level functions that increased in relevance as the internet was adopted by more and more people.


I got my start with Notes courtesy of Apple and The New York Times. It was either late 1992 or early 1993 and my phone rang. When I picked up the phone, the head of IT for The New York Times was on the other end. She told me that the Times used Notes (it was still a Lotus product at that time), but they wanted to put some sort of HyperCard-like graphic front-end on it, had spoken to Apple, and Apple sent her to me.

Up to this point, I'd been doing a lot of work with Apple, heading up some Apple programs on HyperCard and education. I knew a lot about HyperCard, but little about Notes. I had read about Notes in the trade press, but that was about it. Although the Times' request sounded interesting, there wasn't really a way to marry HyperCard with Notes. I let her know, and we said goodbye.

But then I started thinking. This Notes thing might have some legs. I made some calls and found out that Notes, back then still at Release 2, was in entrenched use at organizations ranging from the Port of Gabon in Africa to the Royal Bank of Canada.

It was enterprise software before enterprise software was cool.

This was before the web, and information was far harder to find than it was now. No books on Notes were stocked at my local Barnes & Noble. As far as I could tell, no publications focused on it.

The first business book on Lotus Notes. ​

And yet, as I continued to dig, I found that enterprise after enterprise, big companies and all, were depending on Notes to transform how they did business. They never had anything to help collaboration before. Notes opened up the opportunity for teams, departments, and even inter-company projects to communicate.

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Notes was Salesforce before Salesforce. It was Dropbox before Dropbox. It was SharePoint before SharePoint. It was Atlassian before Atlassian. It was Zendesk before Zendesk. It was ServiceNow before ServiceNow. It was Workday before Workday. In some implementations, it was even Github before Github.

It had web-like forms before there was a web, server apps before there were much in the way of servers, and shared distributed databases before such things had even been heard of by most IT folk. Plus, it had an intrinsic, built-in, automatic security level that protected data enterprise wide with a deep level of granularity.

I wrote Lotus Notes 3 Revealed!, which was the first business book on Lotus Notes. When the book took off, I had the idea that a newsletter or publication might be effective. This was in the days before the web, when companies spent hundreds of dollars a year on specialized newsletters.

We started this way before the web was the web. ​

I reached out to The Cobb Group, a newsletter publisher I'd worked with in the past. I took a couple of trips to Louisville, where the Cobb Group was located, and we discussed a deal. I also flew down to my first of 15 Lotuspheres in Orlando and met with key Lotus execs. Together, and with input and support from Lotus, we started a publication called Workspace for Lotus Notes.

Here's a neat point of trivia: TechRepublic, ZDNet's sister site, was formed by the same team that created The Cobb Group. The reason there are still CBSi (our parent company) people working in Louisville is because of those Cobb Group roots.

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After Workspace for Lotus Notes, we acquired and I headed up The Notes Report, and even edited a CD-ROM-based Lotus Notes magazine for IBM.


When it came time for the web to begin eclipsing print newsletters, my then-future wife Denise Amrich and I started DominoPower. It would become the longest continually run, editorially-managed publication about IBM Lotus technologies and strategies. With more than 12,000 articles in its database, DominoPower counted among its readers and fans most of the key influencers and decision-makers in the IBM Lotus IT sphere.

Notes and Domino supported me and my team for nearly 20 years. But it wasn't just me. The Notes and Domino community was something very, very special.

Every year, we'd trek on down to Lotusphere, which was hosted at the Dolphin in Disney World. The timing of this was brilliant. The Lotus team was mostly based in Massachusetts and Lotusphere was in Orlando -- in January. A large percentage of the Notes user base was located in northern climates, where a visit to an ice-free land in the middle of winter was incredibly welcome.

(Image: David Gewirtz)

At Lotusphere, there were sessions, exhibits, and parties. Lotus -- and then IBM -- used to rent out sections of Disney World and Universal Studios for private events, just the Notes and Domino folks.

What many people outside the Notes world don't realize was that there was a vibrant aftermarket for Notes-related products and services. These were tool builders, folks who created specialized apps, management systems makers, and integrators.

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Over the years, I got to know not only the Lotus (and then IBM) folks who managed Notes and Domino, but the developers who implemented them, the IT managers who ran their companies off them, and the entrepreneurs who built vibrant companies around Notes and Domino.

A Lotusphere breakout session (Image: David Gewirtz)

To a person, these were awesome people. They were friendly, funny, smart as heck, and dedicated to providing the best products and services to their customers and constituents. To this day, I count many of the people I met during my Notes and Domino years among my friends.

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Over time, of course, the world changed. The idea of a distributed client software system, even one as revolutionary as Notes, became obsolete. The idea of client software, in general, has entered obsolescence in the face of cloud-based operations.

One of the last Lotuspheres (Image: David Gewirtz)

During that transition, many companies still relied on Notes implementations. Many users, who were starting to become comfortable with a much-changed IT environment, were forced to use Notes-based legacy apps. These apps, while once world-changing and ahead of their time, were growing cumbersome and dated.

As such, many of the more recent users of Notes and Domino have a less-than-positive perspective of the products. It's sad, because in their heyday, Notes and Domino were amazing.

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As news about the HCL acquisition of Notes and Domino trickles out, I've been somewhat saddened to see some unkind comments about Notes and Domino. If those folks had seen what Notes and Domino meant to IT back in the day, they probably wouldn't have been nearly as dismissive about the importance and relevance of these tools.

That's why I'm writing this piece. If you're not familiar with Notes and Domino, or if you used them after their time, I want you to understand that, for many years, they were a really big deal. For almost two decades, they helped make businesses more effective, helped teams communicate, and helped many left hands know what many right hands were doing.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, they hath borne us on their backs a thousand times.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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