Exchange vs Lotus
The problem with being a gargantuan market leader is the spectre of doubt around you. You might have put in genuine effort and come up with a superb product, which rightfully occupies the lion's share of the market. But one thought lingers in the user's mind, "Am I being short-changed? Is this the best? I deserve the best, don't I?"
Of course I am talking about Microsoft. Its products dominate the market, and the alternatives are either perceived as unconventional, eccentric, or downright Macintosh. When you're desperately trying to communicate the opposite impression in business, you can't help but go back to the familiar. You don't have to teach old dogs new tricks (unless they're switching to Office 2007, in which case they'll howl and drop dead).
And so it goes with Exchange 2010, a solid piece of business messaging platform product that is both well-designed and widely used. Any corporate animal would at least be familiar with its client software, that ubiquitous Outlook, if not the server side.
This is why the persistence of its substantial cross-platform competitor, IBM's Domino/Lotus, strikes as a curious anomaly. Granted it has been there for a while, the latest version being 8.5, and so has its fair share of ardent fan, which swears by its stability. But does this prove that Microsoft is only selling so well because everybody else is tied down to Windows? Never mind the fact that there is little logic to this argument.
We have on our hands two solutions to the problem of business communication: both are principally designed to exchange e-mails amongst users, and tackle assorted tasks such as journaling. They both take a server-client approach, namely a central on-premises server that handles requests from various end-user clients and channels data accordingly. And they are both aimed at the enterprise user, which translates to scalability regardless of the number of users.
Let us take a sober look at both platforms, in terms of deployment, interoperability, features, and costs.
Deploying an e-mail server is a task not to be taken lightly: there is quite a bit of planning and configuration involved so as to suit particular circumstances. IBM and Microsoft take rather different approaches to this process.
Microsoft assumes that you've got a lot of other optional components embedded in your Windows platform, such as .Net Framework, Windows Remote Management, and some IIS bits. Fret not if you haven't installed them: the setup programme will download them as it sees fit. Of course, this takes some time to download, install and reboot, and you'll be handling quite a handful of new services at the end of it, but thankfully it's largely automatic.
When it comes to actually installing Exchange, you can opt out of certain functionalities such as Unified Messaging and the Exchange Management Console, the latter of which is a helpful administrative tool. Then it's more automation: the Readiness Checks takes quite a bit of time but resolves a lot of network configuration issues before they crop up.
Since Domino does not have the home turf advantage, everything comes pre-packed. The installation manager installs everything (and I mean everything - by the time you've familiarized yourself with every new feature an upgrade is probably in order) but configuration took a bit of fine-tuning. In particular, you have to create a user instance and the related files in Domino before you can configure Lotus.
Aye, there's the rub: with IBM, everything goes. 32-bit, 64-bit, Windows Server 2003 upwards, Linux, Solaris, or even that AIX relic from IBM. Exchange Server doesn't even support 32-bit architecture. This difference is reflected in the cost, of which more later.
Microsoft understands the word in a slightly different context: according to its website, Exchange brandishes "single, industry-leading directory interoperability", which is of course the native Active Directory. IBM supports this in the newest version, but no matter.
Ultimately, Exchange comes with a lot of configuration but is meant to be used as is. The average consumer should be quite satisfied with the variety of functionality. And he or she'd better be: there is very little room for customization.
Lotus is designed with the developer in mind. If you have a web application integrating data sources into a single user interface, you can go ahead and integrate that into Lotus. Apart from mash-ups, more sophisticated applications can also find its way into Notes with a little code.
If you belong to that rare breed of IBM aficionados, going as far as the Sametime communications platform or the Symphony office suite, you will find IBM's developer tool-kit immensely helpful when creating plug-ins across all three. Of course, with this degree of customization the system administrator will be dealing with quite a handful.
This is not to say that Exchange isn't feature-rich; far from it. In fact, we might go as far as to say that it does away with customization precisely because it has got so many features to begin with. Lotus, on the other hand, retains its focus on collaboration tools.
If your firm relies on telephony or messaging services, Exchange has the upper hand. SMS provision is managed by ActiveSync, a service widely supported by mobile platform operators; voice mail is integrated into Outlook Web access through a somewhat shaky text-to-speech engine (good luck if you don't have an American accent). The mobile user can find instant messaging logs, emails, and virtually any correspondence in the same interface. Administrators can set mobile device policies with regards to attachments and syncing per individual user.
As for Lotus users, an additional instance of Notes Traveller provides similar levels mobility and supports Exchange ActiveSync. Management and security concerns are complicated in the process, however.
Other companies with multiple premises will find Exchange federation a useful addition. As the name suggests, resources such as message delivery and calendar can be "federated" across servers. In case the total number of users get a bit overwhelming, administrators can delegate some control to the end users themselves through the Exchange Control Panel. As for internal IT needs, the Management Console remains very user-friendly.
Microsoft's focus on end-users can be readily seen in its MailTip function. Anyone who's attested to an embarrassing malapropism or even a whole email addressed to the wrong recipient would have dreamed of an undo button in their email client. Indeed, Google once introduced an April's Fool feature which was just that - alas it was not to be.
A system administrator cannot possibly be bothered with any review mechanisms: emails are supposed to be delivered as soon as they have been retrieved, and the user is responsible for what he or she has typed at the front-end. But Microsoft, knowing very well that the sheer torrent of information mobile exchanges will bring, took the trouble of developing an "on-second-thoughts" interface. It is anything but an innovative solution to an age-old problem, but to many end-users it feels exactly just like that.
Meanwhile, Lotus has held on to its roots as groupware, i.e. a collaborative productivity tool, with which many users can work on the same document simultaneously. The quaint client still sits at the end-user's terminal, albeit with a number of refinements in the details, such as auto-completion. Not terribly exciting all in all, with the exception of such innovations as calendar mash-ups and integration with Lotus Connections (the social network component of the IBM suite).