The trend for ?lite? products is an established one, as it becomes clear to manufacturers that customers can?t (or don?t want to) cope with the slew of new features with which they?re constantly assailed. No sooner does a good idea appear on the market than it begins to sink beneath the weight of add-ons and helper applications which claim to enhance it. There?s no time to get to grips with complex new concepts before they?re swept away by better versions aimed at bigger-budget customers.
Smaller versions of products make sense because not everyone?s a big corporate and because even big corporates don?t necessarily want the biggest, most complex product available. At all levels, manufacturers are now promoting products with fewer features that appeal to smaller companies. For these reasons, quite apart from technical ones, smaller, more focused Internet and intranet products seem likely to do well.
After a period in the software wilderness, Lotus has regained ground with its groupware productivity program Notes and its Web server and development tool Domino. Domino is a powerful and successful technology which has re-established Lotus as a serious player in the high-end corporate connectivity and communications market. Now the company wants to make it accessible to companies which may not have the expertise or resources to take on full-scale intranet development projects.
Notes and Domino form the core of Lotus? latest offering, the Lotus Intranet Starter Pack. Its main aim is to become an off-the-shelf ?intranet-in-a-box? solution for smaller companies which can?t justify high start-up costs or drawn-out implementation plans. The pack bundles a Domino Web applications server, a choice of Web browsers (Explorer or Navigator), the Notes client with a five-user licence, and 12 ready-to-go business applications. These include Internet email; a document library; calendaring; customer tracking; project management; home page creation and maintenance; an employee directory; forms bins; and customisable discussion database areas. The three-CD pack divides the elements into the core client and server software, Domino and Notes; the browsers; and a set of Internet mail handling protocols to link Notes mail with the Internet.
The package is designed for fast and easy startup, and includes an install wizard which talks IT staff through the basics. Server and workstation installation are options on the same wizard, and there are tips on what to do. Once installation is under way, the software takes over and does most of the system configuration ? all the operator has to do is supply information about preferences such as the type of connection. Once this is done complete desktops are prepared automatically, so end users need do little more than reset their passwords. Assuming that there are no external technical hitches and that there is an existing network, the initial five users can be set up in less than an hour.
Of the 12 applications, four are on the CD and the remaining eight can be retrieved from the Lotus Domino Web site (domino.lotus.com). They can be installed individually and at any time. The four standard applications are the document library, the employee directory, the form bins and the discussion databases; the others become available automatically when you first create the server and register online. The employee database is probably the most useful tool, being the point at which new users are created and made available on the system. Depending on access rights, new users can be added or edited, or existing ones can be added to your address book.
The discussion database draws on Notes? strength in threaded messaging, with users able to create bulletin board-style topics, replies and replies-to-replies in a clear and structured way. It?s also possible to attach files to discussion items. More formal company documents, such as policy documents and job specifications, can be held in the document library. Standard forms, such as job applications and holiday leave requests, can be created and held in the form bins area.
The home page tool (stored on the Web) also uses wizard-like facilities to allow newcomers to achieve modest but effective results quickly and easily. It draws nervous technophobes into relatively advanced interactions with their intranet almost without their realising it, helping to develop a company culture which embraces this technology. However, this does have its downside. Home pages have a way of sprouting like mushrooms as each person makes their statement, then they quickly become abandoned or go out of date.
Domino is designed to allow more direct interaction between users and Web sites, rather than channelling control through a single (overworked) Webmaster. This frees content authors to work at their own pace, but also raises the possibility of chaos if this doesn?t happen.
Generating a culture of involvement means training users to maintain fresh content on their sites at regular intervals which are built into their job descriptions ? in other words, getting workgroups to develop strategies for displaying information which is useful rather than just interesting, and which doesn?t clutter up the server. If this threatens to overwhelm the flow of real work through the system, it?s possible to set up work-flow mechanisms so that, for example, customer queries posted to your Web site or application forms which need urgent processing can be ?flowed? from one party to another at given times or when specified actions are completed.
The browser is accessible from Notes through a single-click icon, making it almost seamless to trawl between Internet and intranet. Also, Domino offers extensive application development capabilities to help companies run interactive applications over the Web, the whole approach creating a system that?s closely integrated with the outside world. Conceptually, this is the desktop vision of the future, but for IT managers it raises important security questions. Domino, relying on Notes? already established security mechanisms, can meet security challenges comprehensively through multiple security layers, many of which are automatically triggered.
Starter pack facts
R Contact: Lotus on 01784 455445 or www.lotus.com
R Price: #1,050
The Business Verdict
The Lotus Intranet Starter Pack is a good idea and an impressive package of products which brings manageable, high-quality communications software to small companies. But to get the most out of it you?ll still need someone with more than a passing knowledge of networks, Web servers and the Internet; and if you have access to Lotus Notes development skills then so much the better. Lotus is addressing this potential weakness through a programme of VAR recruitment to equip VARs with the knowledge to provide support for small companies which don?t have the skills themselves. But for end users, the complement of tools is flexible and usable. The pack does raise some management and control issues, but this is true for any intranet, and from a technical viewpoint they?re already addressed.
The Intranet Starter Pack will be bundled with IBM?s new range of servers, making it a natural choice for small companies ready to give intranet use a go.
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