Lotus suite blooms anew

Software gets better front-end interface, thousands of new features

The Lotus Development Corp. office product line has always been known for good security and back-end features. It's mainly the user interface that has kept Lotus on the sidelines of the suite market.

In Lotus Notes, Domino and Domino Designer 6, Lotus owner IBM Corp. has married an easier front-end interface to the secure back end, bundling all the software conveniently in one package.

For this review, I looked at the server and client-side parts of the package rather than the designer features.

The suite is still a little trickier to use than Microsoft Office XP. Literally thousands of new features have been added because of user feedback. I'll highlight those I found the most helpful.

On the server side, Lotus Domino 6 has built-in compression for synchronizing files between client and server. Mobile users will find this a huge advantage. It overcomes one of the biggest problems with older Lotus versions: long wait times over 56-Kbps dial-up connections.

File compression is supposed to be 35 percent to 50 percent better, and my tests bore that out. With an older version of Lotus, it took me 15 minutes to synchronize a large database between the server and a notebook PC at 56 Kbps. With Lotus 6, the same exchange took just eight minutes.

Easier setup

Also on the server side, an administrator can more easily set up management protocols and even restart the server without manual interaction following certain events.

Another server-side feature helpful for government offices is called the Mail Message Journal. The administrator can set up a rule for encrypting and storing certain e-mail in addition to distributing it to recipients. I found the rules interface pretty good for tagging mail by keywords, subject lines, recipients or other criteria.

The new Lotus client is drastically better than prior versions. A wizard interface lets the user set up the desktop view as desired, with calendar, e-mail or other things ready to go on the welcome page.

As with the Mail Message Journal, the user can also designate certain types of messages to go into certain folders. This isn't a new concept, but Lotus has incorporated artificial intelligence to recall where the user previously put certain e-mails. It suggests folders for future messages even if no specific rule has been set up.

The more I used this feature, the more it learned my preferences and the more accurate it became.

Attachment editing

Perhaps the best feature is the ability to edit attachments right in an e-mail message. Simply right-click on an attachment, select an editing option, make the changes and save the attachment. The edited version can be returned immediately to the sender without having to save it for editing and then reattach it to a new message.

The calendar function also is much better. In setting up a meeting, the calendar program looks at the schedules of everyone invited and draws up a chart showing their availability. The organizer can see, for example, that nine of 10 people are free on Tuesday, but on Wednesday only seven of 10 can attend.

Lotus Domino and Notes 6 are vastly improved, almost like a different product. Whether the new features are good enough to win over users of other office suites is yet to be seen. But even if the improvements are somewhat late, at least they aren't too little.

The easy, intuitive interface improves on an already solid back end'and it even does some thinking for the user.

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