Put NCs to work with Lotus eSuite

Lotus Development Corp.'s eSuite, heralded for more than a year as the
working environment for the network computer, is one of the most innovative products in
recent years. But innovative doesn't equal perfect.


Known first by the code name Kona, the suite has Java applets that let users do basic
office tasks. Not only are the applets innovative in how they work separately but also in
how they unite to form a user-friendly framework.


Though the suite's functions are limited, they are adequate for NC users. An eSuite
DevPack can extend the eSuite WorkPlace with custom-developed Java and JavaBeans
applications.


The GCN Lab tested a version of eSuite WorkPlace running on a Java Virtual Machine
environment under Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation. This is not eSuite's
native NC environment, so it wasn't fair to judge the applets' performance speed.


The most noticeable thing about eSuite is the interface, which is unlike that of
Windows and Mac OS. At the left of the screen appear the WorkPlace button and Task List.
At the bottom is a Status Bar.


The Work Area takes up the rest of the screen. There you select and interact with
applets for document creation, e-mail, scheduling, World Wide Web browsing and enterprise
data systems.


Pressing the WorkPlace button anytime brings you back to the main screen.


The approach is broad but not deep. The e-mail applet comes


closest to equaling its PC mail package counterpart. The rest of the applets probably
won't appeal to managers, but eSuite isn't meant for them. The target users for eSuite,
like those for NCs, are users moving up from green-screen dumb terminals and PCs with IBM
3270 emulator cards.


For offices that find PCs too costly, NCs with eSuite and custom applications will
deliver a quantum jump in automation and connectivity. It's not a sexy niche, but it's a
start.


The word processing applet ranks somewhere between Microsoft WordPad and a full desktop
word processor. You can use it as a static Web page layout tool that sets text attributes,
inserts images, makes tables and saves documents in Hypertext Markup Language 3.2, ASCII
text or the Rich Text Format. You can even set up the text prompt for data entry into
online forms.


The spreadsheet applet takes a similar tack. No one is going to build heavily formatted
3-D worksheets with this tool, but most targeted users would likely find it helpful. It
has 21 built-in, common functions.


Users experienced in spreadsheet arcana won't find their favorites here, although there
are enough formatting controls to display data easily. You can even import Lotus 1-2-3
.wk1 files.


The presentation applet has a few templates but seems out of place, because eSuite
users probably will not create official slide shows themselves but instead pass on raw
data to the boss. The applet descends directly from Lotus Components for Notes, which had
many of eSuite's functions except for using ActiveX instead of Java.


The e-mail applet best approximates the desktop PC mail experience, because e-mail
standards have been strongly influenced by the large number of e-mail users with
underpowered notebooks. The mail applet supports Post Office Protocol 3, Internet Message
Access Protocol 4 and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol.


You write and send messages in Rich Text Format, and hyperlinks are accessible from
within a message. ESuite lacks the mail management finesse found in most desktop PC mail
packages, but overall the applet is good at what it does.


There's a nice bonus: The e-mail client integrates with the calendaring and scheduling
applets. Setting up mail accounts was easy, and we had no problem sending or receiving
mail.


The eSuite browser is slightly anemic but works as well as Netscape Navigator 2.0.
There is no support for plug-ins or other active content. The browser runs embedded Java,
however.


ESuite does a good job of treating the Web as an extended storage device, whether via
the Internet or an intranet. Lotus' view of how an NC user browses the Web is right on
target.


The browser, based on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s HotJava browser, supplies the usual
features such as bookmarking, history listings, and forward and back buttons.


The Calendar and Address Book applets should be more robust. The Calendar applet uses
the new iCalendar standard for group scheduling across the Web or an intranet.


The Address Book comes in two pieces: a personal book and a Universal Address Book,
which is the LDAP directory of your choice.


So how do Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino fit into all this?


Domino can act as a Web server or mail store for eSuite users, but there's no special
integration. Lotus probably will move in that direction after eSuite matures a bit.


Don't think of eSuite as the NC equivalent of Lotus SmartSuite or Microsoft Office.
Instead, think of it as a platform for building enterprise application interfaces for NCs.
A note on the box should warn: Some assembly required.


Even so, the day has arrived when you can develop custom applications for NC and PC
users simultaneously. If your agency has been waiting for NCs to bear fruit, take a look
at eSuite. It might not be perfect in its raw form, but it's a good ingredient for a
thin-client recipe.


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