(FORTUNE Magazine) – People are beginning to think that I'm just an inveterate curmudgeon, because I'm always writing columns that criticize computer companies (see Letters for what fans of Apple Computer think of me). I swear I can be nice. One of these days I'll write a really happy column praising some unsuspecting vendor. But here I was last month, one of some 9,000 people watching the executives of the Lotus division of IBM razzling and dazzling customers and developers at the Disney World Dolphin Hotel in Orlando. And all I could think was: All this for what's really a glorified E-mail program?

I don't want to be such a curmudgeon. In fact, some people think I'm really a cheerful and enthusiastic fellow. But I've used Lotus Notes. I used it for four years at the last place I worked. And no matter how hard we tried, we could never use it the way we were supposed to. Instead, we used it for E-mail, and that was horrible. (One note: All E-mail programs are horrible. But until recently, Notes was more horrible than the other E-mail programs.)

One of the main reasons Notes E-mail was a problem was that Lotus doesn't want people to think of Notes as E-mail. The company has been very slow to make the E-mail parts of Notes usable or even competitive with other mail programs.

No, Lotus wants to think of itself as a groupware company. After all, groupware is a noble mission; E-mail is a pedestrian job. One of the computer industry's most cherished dreams is to convert computers from mere tools into intelligent assistants. This dream takes a variety of forms: expert systems that can incorporate the wisdom of human savants; intelligent agents that can roam cyberspace and take action on behalf of individuals; smart filters that can read and evaluate a mass of information to identify only relevant and interesting material; and what has become known as groupware, software that can help individuals become more effective and productive members of a group.

Lotus brought the groupware dream to life eight years ago when it introduced Lotus Notes. Notes was presented as a set of software that would elevate the experience of sharing information to such a high level that you would automatically become more productive--you would know the right things at the right time and not have to wade through the wrong stuff to get there. And Notes is quite a set of software. It is a comprehensive system for organizing and distributing unstructured information around an organization. ("Unstructured" means things like this article, or memos you may have written, or other items that don't fit into a predetermined structure. "Structured" means things like payroll records and inventory data.) Since the networks inside companies weren't very advanced when Notes was introduced, the software did a lot of things that are now routine, like making sure the network is secure and can be administered by the right people.

But now, eight years later, with Lotus in the process of introducing what amounts to the fourth major revision of the product, the question nags: Has Notes really made a difference? Has Notes really changed how people work or made companies work more effectively? Has groupware? I don't think so.

You have to understand two things: First, I am a real skeptic about the basic idea that computers can be intelligent. I have not personally experienced this phenomenon. If anything, I find computers to be increasingly stupid. After 15 years of using computers, I have yet to be surprised by a computer anticipating my needs. (This could, of course, be chalked up to my obscure and unusual needs.)

Some companies do manage to use Notes effectively. But to do so, they have to completely rethink the way they do business. That's because Notes works best after heavy customization. In other words, a desire to use the expensive software it has purchased forces the company to reconsider everything it does. That's terrific--but you've got to wonder about a company that needs to buy expensive software to do that kind of basic analysis.

Second, having used Notes in my last job, I have an intense personal dislike for the software, which makes it difficult for me to be sympathetic to those who do find it useful. As I said before, I used Notes mostly for E-mail, rather than for its vaunted collaboration features. (Notes wasn't designed to be just an E-mail program.) I also used it on a Macintosh. (Notes wasn't designed to run on a Macintosh.) I wasted a lot of time working around Notes' shortcomings. It made me less productive. I wasn't happy.

I was required to use Notes because our company was making a serious effort to find a way to enhance productivity. But it never worked for anybody outside the sales department. So the people who were forced to use the program ended up resenting the whole effort. Within our company you had people who loved what it did, people who never understood why they were forced to use the program, and people who couldn't figure out what the fuss was about anyway. I've talked to lots of other users, and that kind of reaction seems to be the norm when a company takes on Notes.

There is no doubt that Notes is the leading groupware program. Lotus says more than nine million people use Notes. By general agreement, Notes is still the only set of software that completely incorporates the idea of using computers to enhance group productivity. Three other companies claim to offer groupware products: Microsoft's Exchange, Netscape's Communicator, and Novell's GroupWise. But Exchange and GroupWise are E-mail programs with collaboration features added. Netscape started with a Web browser and added E-mail and collaboration features. None of the three can really compete with Notes--in particular, none can match its ability to replicate data in a controlled, predictable fashion, no matter how huge or international the company.

There's also no doubt that Lotus has done an outstanding job improving Notes. It has finally fixed many of the E-mail shortcomings. It has made Notes Web-friendly. It has separated Notes into components so companies can use the parts they need, rather than install the entire behemoth.

Fine: I still don't think that groupware really matters. In fact, a recent study of Notes users by UCLA and Arthur Andersen showed that most people on Notes don't even use it for groupware. Instead, like me, they use it primarily as an E-mail program. In other words, even people who use the program don't seem to use the features of the program that are most central to what it is supposed to do.

This makes me think that the more complicated things about people--the way they interact and exchange information, or the way they intuit the meaning of information--cannot be regularized by software. In other words, the Notes dream was probably doomed from the start: It never could have been anything more than a glorified E-mail program.


STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Neither he nor his partnership has financial interests in the companies mentioned. Alsop can be reached at stewart_alsop@fortunemail.com