Roots of Notes

Lotus Notes reached its 15 birthday this month -- a notable plateau for any technology. But the road really began long before Lotus' Notes roll out in 1989. Notes can be traced to the early '70s, long before the IBM PC and the desktop revolution.

Lotus Notes this month reached its 15th birthday -- a notable plateau for any technology. But the road really began long before Lotus' Notes rolled out in '89. The important ideas behind the Notes client and server can be traced back as far as the early '70s, almost a decade before the wide commercialization of PCs in business.

In fact, Notes/Domino finds its roots in some of the first computer programs written at Computer-based Education Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Illinois. In '73 CERL released a program called Plato Notes that was the very beginning of the Lotus Notes Domino product known to developers and administrators today.

Plato Notes' goal was to tag a bug report with the user ID and the date, ensure the files were secure so other users couldn't delete them and notify the system staff to respond. The purpose of Plato Notes -- secure communication between users -- is simple by today's standards, but was revolutionary in '73.

In '76, Plato Notes was expanded upon and released as Plato Group Notes. This version could create private notes files, access lists, anonymous notes and director message flags. In addition, it could sort by date, mark comments in documents, link Notes files with other Plato systems and support multiplayer games. Plato Group Notes remained popular through the early '80s. Once the IBM PC and its related Microsoft MS-DOS software were introduced, Plato's minicomputer-based architecture was a good target for migration to PC systems.

There were three key players who worked on the Plato system at CERL in the '70s: Ray Ozzie, Tim Halvorsen and Len Kawell. It was the extremely talented programmer, Ozzie, who first broke away, applied his extensive knowledge of Plato and began to independently work on a proposal for the development of a PC-based Notes product. Initially, Ozzie couldn't find funding to research his innovative idea. Lotus Notes/Domino, a man named Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp., eventually came to value Ozzie's vision and invested Lotus' money in his work.

At the end of '84, Ozzie founded Iris Associates Inc., an independent firm that was under contract to and funded by Lotus, to develop an approach to sharing information among PC users in groups. In January '85, Halvorsen and Kawell returned to work with Ozzie to help pioneer the collaboration and messaging software known as Notes.

Ozzie and his associates wanted users to be able to share information with co-workers in the same office as easily as they could in a distant branch office. Iris modeled Lotus Notes after Plato Notes, but the new system was based on a client/server architecture in which PCs can connect to servers over local area networks (LANs). This infrastructure was created to facilitate ease of use. The beginning of Notes was the beginning of the first virtual community.

The original vision of Notes included online discussion, e-mail, phone books and document databases. Unfortunately, it was the early '80s and technology was far from what it is today. Networking was very basic and extremely slow compared to today's standards. And the PC operating system was simply immature. These problems caused Iris associates to spend valuable time writing masses of system-level code in order to develop name servers and databases.

As Notes developed and networking grew better, Iris began to speak of Notes as "groupware." The term groupware -- applications that enhance communication, collaboration and coordination among groups -- began with Ozzie, Halvorsen and Kawell and has since become synonymous with Notes.

While developing Notes, a question arose regarding customization. Should Iris build applications into the product or be flexible and allow users to create applications for their companies' individual needs? As you may already know, it became both.

In '86 Notes was complete and ready to ship to the first internal Lotus users. In '87 Lotus officially bought the rights to Notes. And in '89 the very first version of Lotus Notes was released and shipped. In the first year, Lotus Notes Release 1.0 sold over 35,000 copies.

To run Lotus Notes 1.0, Notes clients required DOS 3.1 or OS/2 and Notes servers needed DOS 3.1, 4.0 or OS/2. Lotus Notes allowed people to create and share information as they had not done before, using PCs and local and wide area networks. They were able to work together to help track and share documents, communicating in a real-time environment.

One of the most profound aspects of Lotus Notes was its capabilities as a developer product. But it also provided "out-of-the-box" functionality. These two traits allowed it to evolve in unique ways. Notes 1.0 provided templates to help build custom applications, but also offered completely ready to use applications such as Group Mail, Group Discussion and Group Phone Book.

Over the next 15 years, Lotus Notes experienced immense growth with the computer industry. It was constantly adapted to meet users evolving needs and thus matured into the Lotus Notes/Domino 6.5 product used today.

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