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Posted on January 15th, 2010 by Steve Cassidy

Gmail 2010 = Lotus Notes 1995?

Gmail labs

The hissy fit between Google and the People’s Republic of China has been in the news – including the “quality papers” a good deal lately. So, I went to see what’s new at Google for mail users, and spent a while looking around the extended features offered in its Labs, where you can find the stuff Google thinks is going to be cool, neat, and realy useful for those of us who have failed to compress the whole of our existence down to the 140 character limit of Twitter.

It was the sudden flip to using HTTPS which really put me in mind of the comparisons with other email products. HTTPS, Google says, is the answer to concerns over the security of people’s emails, and it had long intended to turn the feature on were it not for the inherent processing overhead to that type of network traffic.

Adding https to the list of featues scattered around in the Labs – which includes offline access to your Gmail inbox and cached sending of outgoing mails when a link to the net is unreliable – put me in mind of my very early exposures to computer-based email. And those were pretty early. I can remember going to demos of DECNET, with them breathlessly telling us about DEC employees who had met and then married via DEC’s world-spanning internal email system made out of VAXes.

The most obvious comparison, though, was with Lotus Notes. Back in the nineties, I was managing a Notes system with some pretty high-profile data chuntering about in it, and teams of guys dialling in to pick up and drop mail from Namibia to London.

We even had a case of user identity theft in the middle of a legal dispute, which was rapidly shut down by a bit of careful RTFM to re-stamp the legitimate user with a new certifier key, thereby locking out his illicit doppelganger once and for all. Comparing the Notes architecture back then (all of which is still in the product, even now) with what Google is laboriously developing, as if there were no prior art, is pretty illuminating: Notes does smart replication between servers and clients, works offline or in low-bandwidth connections admirably well, secures the inter-machine traffic with robust levels of encryption, doesn’t have to sit on top of protocols used for other things, stamps messages with irrefutable digital identities so you can verify who the sender really is. These are all things which SMTP (on the one hand) and webmail over http (on the other) are struggling to reproduce, the best part of 20 years later.

This is of course, why Ray Ozzie got the top job at Microsoft. Design one thing that stands the test of time on a global basis and you too can change the world. It seems an appalling indictment on the illusion of progress that Google has to slowly churn out the same product, in public, with lives and freedom at risk as it tries to fit everyone in the world into its cosy Californian version of freedom.

Before Ozzie joined Microsoft (which was when I met him), he was exceedingly proud of what had been achieved in the aid programmes for the Indian Ocean countries, by using Groove. This was his successor to Lotus Notes, and was a key example of a “light touch” technology for people with “too much IT”, as he put it. In a very quiet and successful deployment, people in organisations as diverse as the US Navy and the government of Sulawesi had been able to collaborate across otherwise insurmountable systems and security barriers, by signing up – securely and quietly – to Ozzie’s Groove initiative.

The contrast with Google’s approach could not be more stark.

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28 Responses to “ Gmail 2010 = Lotus Notes 1995? ”

  1. Steve Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 10:39 am

    “and realy useful for those of us who have failed to compress the whole of our existence down to the 140 character limit of Twitter”

    Come on, is real(l)y saving on an ‘l’ what 140 characters has reduced you to ;-)

  2. JohnH Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Totally agree on Lotus Notes, it still is a good corporate system today. Much as I love MS for many things, their equivalent set up to achieve what Notes (Domino) does on one Server, is a nightmare that leads to multiple installations on many servers. It is not just Google who is trying to reinvent the wheel !

  3. Nicl Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    The only times I have used Lotus Notes it has performed really really slowly! Maybe it was the machine at the time, but there is something to be said for more lightweight email programs (like gmail and webmail).

  4. Matt Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    But Notes is awful as an end user experience. In my company no one used the calendar as it was execreble so what use are meeting scheduling facilities? Email had an which popped up dialog boxes limited to 8 character filenames. Moving to outlook felt like the 21st century had arrived. RIP Notes.

  5. Steve Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I agree, Notes is a pretty painful experience. The Tech may be there, but the UX is definitely not.

  6. JohnH Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Interesting reading some of the comments. As a Project Manager dealing with a global organisation which included thousands of field Engineers with laptops plus the back office infrastructure. The original rather ‘patchwork’ structure was based upon Exchange and Outlook and for business reasons, was far too slow, in fact dire. We ran a pilot Domino/Notes test and it was far faster and far more reliable. Look at the article above, we could monitor every user ! The one problem I found was obvious, everybody used Outlook Express or Full Fat Outlook and therefore felt that they were familiar with it plus, the majority of users are totally “change resistant”. If you didn’t put the training in and with a phase of Desk side one-to-one, you would have a problem. It was even more than that, the IT staff would feel that “their benefit” was in having useless Microsoft accreditations such as MCSE and so forth so, they needed to be trained in who they worked for and, it wasn’t Microsoft or IBM. On a standalone basis (for now), anybody who is using Outlook is a not very technically aware person, there are far better and free alternatives which are easier to back up.

  7. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Could those who had a bad time with Notes please indicate what year they looked at it, and the version they saw (if they can still remember)? I have seen many Notes setups killed off by over-zealous sytems admins who restrict far more than they really should – which was the original cause of Ray Ozzie’s “too much IT” philosophy for Groove…

  8. JohnH Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 4:31 pm


    An interesting comment on Calendar/Scheduling, there is very little difference between Outlook/Exchange and Notes/Domino on this technically (training/interface ?). I have never seen as a Contract PM, any organisation use the facility properly unless “Top Management” does too, it is a “culture” discipline thing and unless the Boss ‘insists’ upon it as part of running his business, the particular ‘technology’ is irrelevant. As you say “In my company no one used…” it is not technology, it is ‘culture’. No, I’m not defending Notes here, my last job was trying to get an ‘MS Shop’ to use Outlook/Exchange, Sharepoint. SQL and Office to properly use what they had already bought and paid for – they didn’t use ‘Calendar/Scheduling’ in Outlook either !!! The thought that came to mind was someone who; “Knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

  9. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Again. HohnH, it depends when you looked at Notes. Most of the smart stuff was in at an early stage, like Time Zone handling and the federation of BusyTime databases between separated servers: but the UI definitely lagged for a bit during Notes v4. My favourite was the way you could reconstruct a server (mine was blown up by the IRA) directly from the files on the users laptops. Not exactly a method available to Exchange!

  10. JohnH Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 4:54 pm


    They don’t, period and the reason is because of ‘culture’ not technical reality that ensures their job and continues to pay their wages. The reason Domino/Notes set-ups get killed off is simple, it is almost a ‘genius system’ in its own right and in that context, far too difficult to explain to your average “serf” in terms of what it can do for them. Back in the days of 4.5, I trained a bunch of “secretary s” in the City to write their own simple but useful applications, a year later they all took me out for a really “Big Girls Night” because of their bonuses ! Obviously 5 was the watershed although 4.6 set the trend. At the age of 64, I’m ‘OUT’ of the Trendy Wendy game but if I were to set up a new business today, the desktop would be Win 7, the web server Apache and messaging + applications Domino/Notes, still the one to beat.

  11. JohnH Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    I think we are ‘crossing’ here on our comments. With regard to your 4:31, it might have been whatever preceded v4 around 1995/6, not sure and was not that convinced, at the time Novell 3. something was likely more important. Windows 95 and a Novell client was as I recall, a really big bustard at that time !

  12. Rederick Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    The problem with Notes/Domino is that Domino is excellent, and the relatively new web based email works well – the Notes client 7 was lightning quick on a reasonable spec XP machine – same as Outlook 2003.

    Notes 8 has completely changed the game; new GUI in Java is horrendously slow to render on an XP Core2Duo 2gb RAM machine that runs Outlook 2007 like lightning. The other features of Notes have moved to the web in most corporates.

  13. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I found that with the early betas and first releases of 8.0. 8.5 is a different matter, on XP, Vista or Win7 – normally the bad performance is due to a broken Java install in XP. IBM have been talking a lot to their company failthful about the value of the Notes client versus the confusions and fakeries of web interfaces when they actually hit the real world. Internally, IBM use the client.

  14. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Oh, and running 7 client with 8.5 server is pretty straightforward. Mixed client-side versions talking to central single version server code is an accepted way to work in Domino deployments.

  15. David Bell Says:
    January 16th, 2010 at 12:24 am

    @3 – how lightweight do you think GMail will be once it gets anywhere near the feature set of Notes/Domino ? Code has to live and run somewhere.

  16. Sean Cull Says:
    January 16th, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Steve, I was a PCPro scubscriber from 2004 to 2007 but gave up because of the fixation on exchange and Microsoft.

    It is great to see that you are talking about Notes again.

    I have nothing against Microsoft and some of their stuff is brilliant – its just good to see some balance.

    Thanks again Sean

  17. Patrick Kwinten Says:
    January 16th, 2010 at 11:50 am

    MS Outlook has it’s limitations for me. It is just email.

  18. David Schaffer Says:
    January 17th, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I think the key point is not that Notes had a 1995 UI in 1995 but that it has a 15 year headstart on GMail. Take a look at iNotes ultralite on any smartphone, as just one example, to see “light touch” with Domino/Notes.

  19. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 17th, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    slight case of cross-purposes there David. The Notes comparison is that all the point-to-point security was in right at the start, before the use of mail as a brave blow for “free-dumm” was even thought likely. If you present Notes data over an insecure channel like http, it goes back to being insecure just like everybody else… the issue of “light touch” IT is much more to do with Ray Ozzie’s personal philosophy, and the contrast with the co-operation that went on in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. I might re-write this blog anyway, it was done in about 4 minutes at 12:45 am…

  20. Alan B Says:
    January 18th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Notes 8 certainly looks like an application that has embraced user standards. And the whole Notes/Domino thing always struck me as being much more programmable than Exchange/Outlook.

  21. Peter Says:
    January 19th, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Last used Notes ion a megga corporate (Banking) environment in 1996. Was forced to use Novell too!
    Both were technically competent, but variously flawed for daily use, and I became an MS fanboy when given the opportunity (aided and abetted by CIX).

    I agree with your opening remarks though. Both “Corporate” and personal email systems are going to have to develop the kind of encryption and user verification that Notes has had for years.

  22. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 19th, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I didn’t see the kind of thing that corporates can do with Notes mail until the later part of the 90’s. However, a sense of proportion is important here – if you give those people ANY tool they will do their level best to make it unusable – I don’t recall their Exchange deployments being exactly perfect either. The biggest bank I looked into had mainframe-based Notes mail; it was great. Ran like a rocket, never ever went down, no practical limit to storage space -but I don’t think their budget was exactly small.

  23. MadaboutDana Says:
    January 21st, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Notes is technically impressive, but the UX is very uneven. FirstClass, now, which was the first genuinely graphical groupware developed back in 1990 for the Mac, is unbelievably quick over low-bandwidth connections, because it was first optimised for use over dialup connections. Alas, just like Lotus, OpenText have not lavished enough attention on the UX, and FirstClass is also likely to go the way of the dodo, even though – in terms of speed and convenience – it makes Exchange and IMAP look like the compromises they are.

  24. Steve Cassidy Says:
    January 21st, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Oh, I remember FirstClass! There was even a publishing house that used it for a while (no names, no pack drill). When people complain about user interfaces and even/uneven presentation, I am aways rather puzzled – designing something to service the loudest complainer never struck me as a good plan; the fact you could set Notes so it *didn’t* tell you every time you got a new mail message was considered by a lot of early mail adopters as a *good* thing – one guy I met got over 600 mails a day, but only looked in the inbox about once every 3 hours. To him, the Notes methods for group message select, folder assignment etc were all benefits, not impediments.

  25. apps development Says:
    June 3rd, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Do you mean Google has reinvented wheel by creatin Gmail that way? I don`t understand much in those protocols, and actually I did never work with Lotus Notes, but I like Gmail. Its technology of managing emails is great I think. Most convenient I`ve ever used.

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  27. Melissa Says:
    October 3rd, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Gmail is ever changing since that time and this is the reason why it is the first choice of SMEs.
    Communication becomes really easy with Gmail.

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    January 18th, 2013 at 9:47 pm

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