Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Outlook vs Notes

I've been working with Outlook 2003 for a few months, so here are my observations on Outlook 2003 and how it stacks up to Notes.

Tabbed UI's ROCK

Lotus introduced the tabs in R5, and it was good. No longer did you have to try to keep track of all those open e-mails and Notes databases applications in the Windows task list, now everything was neatly confined to a single UI. Microsoft went a different direction and added the ability to group similar taskbar items. This doesn't serve the same purpose at all.

For starters, instead of quickly scanning a list you can easily see...

you have to click outside the current UI window, look at a list, and select from it.

It's a lot more mental context switching to go through. Also note that in Access I have the Provide Feedback form open, but you can't tell that here. You have to know that the second thing in the list is the currently open element. Since Notes makes the switching mechanism part of the same UI as the work being done there is no question. It gets even better when you have multiple copies of the same Access database open, such as when you're comparing versions of an application.

Where Am I?

Here is an exercise to try from Notes (I'm using Notes 8 Basic):
  • Open your mail
  • Right-click the calendar icon and select "Open in new window"
  • From the new calendar window, click the mail bookmark
  • Notice how it jumps back to the first window. The new window is fixed so it can't load something that is already open.
Outlook isn't as smart. If you do this you'll have two windows with your Inbox.


Grouped taskbar buttons makes this even more fun.

Since Outlook doesn't have tabs, this is the best you can do. One thing I do wish both Notes and Outlook had was a better way to flag which window is the original or first. For Outlook it's the one with the Outlook icon, and it's always either the leftmost in the taskbar or the bottom of the stack. As I close the windows, though, they eventually split apart into separate taskbar buttons when there is enough room. That's a little jarring and disorienting.

I like the tabs in Notes much better, but even then you can get tabs from the same application intermingled with others. It's hard to separate the e-mail with a link from the documents, views or databases the link opens. Notes 8 Standard offers the option to group tabs by application, but I've already expressed my opinion about Notes 8 Standard. :-)

Flexibility Is Good

When I used Notes on a daily basis I was bugged by all the reply and forward options. Eight ways to reply to an e-mail seemed like massive overkill to me. Three different ways to forward a message? Are you kidding me?! After working with Outlook for a while, I see the logic.

In Outlook you have two options for replying: Reply or Reply to All. You have one option for Forward. You set the default for whether they include history in the Options dialog(s). At first that seemed like enough, but then I realized it's probably 50/50 what I reply with history versus what I just reply to. In Outlook this means either deleting the history half the time, copying and pasting it in half the time, or it's a trip through the options: Tools > Options > (Preferences tab) E-mail Options button. Set up the reply style, reply to the message, then go back and undo all that since I don't want that to be the default.

You have exactly ZERO control over whether attachments are included. They are never included on a reply. They are always included on a forward. Want to reply with attachments? Use Forward. Don't want the attachments on a forwarded e-mail? Manually delete them.

I can understand that most users typically only use one style of reply or forward and Outlook works for the majority. But I can't imagine I'm the only person in the world who doesn't want to reply with history to every single e-mail I get. In Outlook I feel forced into that.

What Outlook Gets Right

Setting up a mailbox is just a tab on the user account while you're setting them up in Active Directory. Not having to deal with ID files is nice. The lack of options in Outlook means people can't get confused as easily. Outlook's offline mode is also nice in that it's just a checkbox. I check "use Exchange cached mode" and it automatically sets up the synchronization for me. I never even know it's happening. It would be nice if there was something in the Notes setup routine that would let you configure that during install (and script it for large rollouts).


Maybe 8 years of working with Notes has me so accustomed to it that I can't see the good in Outlook. I find the features anemic and administration is rudimentary. As for the much-vaunted usability, I wonder why Outlook 2007 introduced a Notes-style bookmark bar and doesn't fully implement the Ribbon UI?


  1. Hi Charles,

    but you can administratively control the creation of replicas!

    In the Registration and Desktop Settings there is a tab Databases. The first field is "Create As new replicas on user's machine". It's a rich-text field. You can paste database links into that field. If you apply this setting (through a policy) to a user, his Notes client will care about the creation of a local replica.

    To create a local replica manually, you now have Application - Make Available Offline..., which simplifies the process of creating a local replica for normal users.

    IMHO the ID files are a great security plus! The two-factor authorization Notes uses (ID file + password) is a lot more secure than the one-factor authorization of Web and other applications. Normally, the user name is public, thus you only need to "get" the password e.g. by social engineering. In Notes you would have to get the ID file, too. This mean, you must have access to the local computer (or administrative access to the file share most administrators use as backup).


  2. I feel your pain :)

    I'm working on a migration to Exchange 2007 and Outlook 2003. There are some good features like account creation/reset, but you are right about it being limited. The thing I miss the most is the server monitoring. Anyone have an idea how you are supposed to do this? (I guess they expect you to buy MOM)

  3. Charles, thank you for the great write up. This is refreshing compared to the ridiculously vague "Notes sucks" posts.

    I have two questions for you.
    1.) What about Calendar and Scheduling? How do they compare in not just you putting personal events on your calendar, but the full workflow of enterprise grade meeting invitations, reschedules, delegation, responding with comments, counter proposing times, etc.

    2.) What about all the applications? When I look at my desktop, I have dozens of things I do in Notes. What do you use instead? And tied into that, how do you access/group/organize the alternatives? My feeling is that it is a combo of .Net apps, Access DBs, web sites, SharePoint sites, etc. I love my Notes workspace, almost all of applications I use are there.

  4. @Thomas - I use polices to create local replicas of everything I can, but I haven't found a way to tell Notes to create a replica of the current user's mail during setup. If you know how to do that I would love to learn. :-)

    What I don't like about ID files is I can't reset a user's password administratively. If they call in and tell me they forgot their password it's a rather tedious process to extract the recovery password and get them to enter it.. and hope they typed all 16 characters correctly! Yes, I know that can be changed, and I've done that, but still... the ID files don't help me that much.

    @dholzric - I don't administer Exchange, so I have no idea what kind of monitoring is possible.

    @Alan - We actually don't use the calendar. They don't schedule any resources, they put Post-It notes on the doors of the conference rooms! From the little I have played with the calendar, it is anemic compared to Notes.

    Applications is a HUGE problem we have. Right now they have a monolithic Access app that runs the entire business, from order entry to purchasing to a full accounting system. Adding anything just bloats it even more, so my job (eventually) is to split it up into multiple applications. Many business functions are done in Excel spreadsheets because of the tremendous effort required to put i into the ERP system. I suggested we use Sharepoint and was told the previous CIO decided installed it, demoed it to upper management, and decided it was too complicated and expensive.

    The long-term goal is to recreate the home grown ERP system as an ASP.Net intranet application. That's probably going to take 18 - 24 months.

  5. Charles, your new company sounds like they are in desperate need of Notes :-)

  6. BTW, the setting for creating a local mail replica is in the Desktop Policy document, not the Registration Policy document. So once the user is set up, and the Notes client connects, the settings in the Desktop Policy will be applied. Here is a good article on it:
    Understanding and implementing local mail replicas for IBM Lotus Notes

  7. I've administered Exchange 2000/Outlook 2000 before. At that point, configuring a client for offline use required more than just the checkbox. There was a great deal to be done if uses wanted their folders offline to synch as well, and forget about it if the user's mail file exceeded 250MB. We have folks with 4 Gig mail files on laptops replicating. While it doesn't say much for a strict policy, it speaks bounds about the flexibility in working offline with Notes. Now, how about synching those Outlook Applications to work 'offline'.

  8. @Alan - Thanks. I was going to point out that you can easily create mail file replicas!

    @Charles - "Setting up a mailbox is just a tab on the user account while you're setting them up in Active Directory."

    Umm, this has nothing to do with Outlook. Your focus in the article was solely regarding the UI and then there's this random snippet about how an admin adds a new account... Is this Notes vs. Exchange again?? :)

  9. What we need ...
    .. is a new Notes V8 vs Outlook 2007 or better ND8 vs Exchange and Outlook 2007. There are too many positive comments, almost as marketing and PR remarks. What we - "the notes community" :) needs is hard facts about these two or four products, and the differences between them. As: Do both have the same type of scheduling, do both have group calendars, do both have integrated chat and awareness out of the box, do both have integrated serversync for mobile units, do both have IMAP support for their clients, do both have integrated productivity tools, do both support 4096 bit security, do both support full functionality from the internet, do both support groups and change of group members etc etc, Best regards Tony.bugge@usit.uio.no

  10. What I hear every day is that in Outlook mails are sorted by family name.

  11. I started using Notes 4,5 years ago. I've been thru' version 5, 6, 6.5, 7.x and now version 8. I still hate Notes as much as I did 4,5 years ago when I switched job (from an Exchange based company).

    Notes 8 is a huge step forward. Finally we see features that have been available since Outlook 97. However, it's way to slow and unresponsive.

    Furthermore the search features does not make sense to me at all. If I search through e-mails it usually get it right the first time. When I search again, on another word, it says that 508 conversations matched. However, it shows 1411 conversations, and I have no idea where the 508 matches are.
    Searching for applications/databases does not work properly. I search for a database that I know exists, but no go.

    I'm only praying that the corporation that I work for will come to it's senses pretty soon, and abondon the whole Lotus sphere...

  12. Chris, yeah, you're right, that is out of place. I was trying to come up with something positive to say! :-P

    Tony.Bugge - You have a point but this isn't the right venue. You'd be better off mentioning it on Ed Brill's blog. I'm not in the business of selling Lotus or Microsoft software so feature shoot-outs don't interest me at all. This was from the perspective of a user, namely me.

    Anonymous - "Searching for applications/databases does not work properly. I search for a database that I know exists, but no go."

    You may want to ask your administrators why the databases are not in the catalog rather than blaming the product. Likewise, perhaps you should ask your support people why the records returned don't match the count shown. I'd be glad to help, but without access to your mail I can't explain the discrepancy.

  13. Notes is really lacking a practical solution to give all users an overview of just the important applications in the company.

    With Peanuts Portal there is an elegant approach on openntf.org:


    I added some "enterprise" related features to it:

    - multi-language support (you can manage as many language in one database as you like, user set their preference)
    - up to three frameset tabs to present views in different apps (one or two application frames per frameset)
    - access security based framesets and frames
    - switching between local/server replicas and direct replica creation

    If somebody wants to give it a try (open source), just drop me a line:


  14. Peter, I'm actually in the process of reworking Peanuts for a client! :-) I love that thing, it's absolutely brilliant. Now if only I could press a webify button to update my 50+ Domino apps.

  15. Anonymous - There are two Notes 8 clients depending on the resources of your machine.

    Peter - "Notes is really lacking a practical solution to give all users an overview of just the important applications in the company." Only few apllications are important to everybody. The database library has some capability to solve that issue.

  16. Thilo, did you ever have to give 10 user groups a list of their individual notes apps and also present a portal view to selected databases (company news, team news...). Personally I won't try to do it with the database library. I just use a extended version of Peanuts Portal and it works great for me. Unfortunately the project leader Fabian seems not to work on this project anymore, so a lot (?) of new features did not find their way to the public.

  17. I think there is a policy to push databases to the workspace and you can decide whether everybody gets them or just a specific group.