Lotus Notes, Web Bulletin Boards, and NNTP Newsgroups

You can create a pool of shared documents by using any of the kinds of conferencing I’ve defined. For example, what Lotus Notes does best, right out of the box, is conferencing. The original and still most essential Notes application is the discussion database. Like NNTP newsgroups, Notes discussion databases are threaded sets of messages with attachments. A Notes discussion can also present views other than NNTP’s Author:, Subject:, and Date: views. Notes users can easily tweak the discussion template, adding new fields to the underlying database and corresponding new ways to view the discussion. Notes deeply integrates email and conferencing, using a single data store for both activities. That integration solidifies Notes’ position as the premier solution for users who frequently work offline and must synchronize between local and central data stores.

Notes has a whole lot going for it. I rate it as the Cadillac of conferencing systems. Why, then, don’t I use Notes? Well, I don’t drive a Cadillac either; I drive a Honda Civic. I regard NNTP-based systems as the Honda Civics of the conferencing world. They’re cheap, they’re widely available, they’re less complicated and more reliable than you may think, and they do the basic job well.

What about purely web-based conferencing systems? There are lots of them; see David Woolley’s summary page at http://www.thinkofit.com/ for a current list. In the long run, I think today’s standalone mail- and newsreaders will likely become browser-based applications. But that presumes a generation of browsers with richer user interfaces, and much more robust local data stores, than are available to today’s browsers. It’s true that some users, even corporate users, are beginning to adopt “thin” web-based email. Most, though, still prefer “fat” email programs that exploit native Win32/Mac/Unix graphical interfaces and local storage mechanisms. These programs are faster and more capable than browser-based alternatives and are likely to remain so for a year or two.

As with mailreaders, so with newsreaders. Microsoft’s Outlook Express and Netscape’s Collabra[1] are sophisticated conferencing applications. They are faster and more featureful than any browser-based alternative (using currently universal HyperText Markup Language (HTML) standards) can be. And these newsreaders are natural companions to their counterpart mailreaders, sharing the same viewers, sent-message folders, and message composers. One of my challenges in this book is to document NNTP’s undiscovered value. Another challenge is to locate NNTP within the larger context of Internet groupware. NNTP is by no means the whole story. But it does deserve more play than it typically gets.

In my work at BYTE Magazine, I used NNTP conferencing to support rich collaboration on various levels—within my own department, companywide among three far-flung offices, and worldwide in public newsgroups frequented by BYTE’s staff and readership. Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange could have done all this, but not (in my estimation) as easily or as cheaply. For best results within the company, we’d have wanted to roll out the Notes or Outlook clients to everyone. That would have required an investment in software, in many cases a supporting hardware upgrade, and training. To reach our readers we’d have needed to use Domino or Exchange to export the public discussions out to web browsers or newsreaders. I’m sure I could have made all this work, but I didn’t go that route. Why not? I had observed the following:

  • Everyone on staff already had an installed and functional Internet client, either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.

  • Many of our readers were using one of those two clients.

  • Our company email system was in transition from LAN- and dialup-based cc:Mail to an Internet-style Post Office Protocol 3/Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (POP3/SMTP) system. People were using the mail clients bundled with the Netscape and Microsoft browsers.[2] Those skills were transferable to the NNTP domain, because each mailer shares common components with the corresponding newsreader.

  • The Netscape and Microsoft newsreaders were highly functional. With the advent of Version 4 of the products, both newsreaders could operate over Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)-secured channels and display the same rich HTML content that their corresponding browsers could. Both had also augmented their message-composition tools with basic HTML authoring capability.

All that we lacked was our own dedicated news server. When I installed one—and eventually, several assigned to different roles—we began to learn what can be done with a dedicated NNTP conferencing system that operates apart from the worldwide network of replicating Usenet servers. Conferencing servers are tremendous assets. In Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, I’ll show some of the ways to use them, and in Chapter 13, I’ll show how to install and configure them. But first, let me anticipate the question you should probably be asking now: “If NNTP servers are so darned useful, how come hardly anybody seems to use them?” Thereby hangs a tale.

[1] Netscape Collabra is, confusingly, two different products: an NNTP server, Collabra Server, and an NNTP newsreader, which I’ll usually call simply Collabra, or else “the Netscape newsreader.”

[2] Netscape Communicator’s mailreader is called Messenger, a companion product to the Collabra newsreader. Microsoft’s Outlook Express, however, is a single product that includes both a mailreader and a newsreader.

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