IBM has unveiled the first public beta of Notes/Domino 8, with a full version due in the middle of this year, but the industry is expected to continue to move towards the market-leading collaboration software, Microsoft Exchange.

The Notes 8 client and companion Domino 8 server, now available for download, are key to IBM's strategy for unified communications. The client includes presence and document management tools, as well as social networking software called Lotus Connections that the company introduced at its annual Lotusphere conference in January.

"This is not your father's Notes," said Ken Bisconti, vice president of Lotus messaging and collaboration tools for IBM.

It is the first Notes managed client to be built on Lotus Expeditor (formerly called the Workplace Client Technology) and Eclipse, which lets Notes 8 act as a client for XML-based services, composite applications that combine such services, and applications that incorporate XML-based interfaces.

Bisconti said the client is where users can pull together collaboration and content services, real-time communication, syndication feeds and document authoring tools, including support for the Open Document Format.

"These are all capabilities that business users require in an integrated tool," said Bisconti, who made repeated references to Microsoft, which announced support for VOIP last week, and has recently released Office 2007 and Exchange 2007, new versions of its market-leading office productivity and collaboration tools.

In Notes 8, IBM has added new features to its traditional mail, calendaring and contact tools, including in-line spell checking, mail recall, the ability to group e-mail threads, a sidebar view of the calendar and the ability to collaborate with users starting within a contact list.

Lotus Notes 8, formerly code-named Hannover, was announced in June 2005 and publicly demonstrated for the first time at Lotusphere in 2006. A private beta was launched in November. Bisconti said IBM plans at least one more beta before the software ships mid-year.

The Notes 8 beta will run on Windows and Linux. The Domino 8 server will run on Windows, Linux, AIX, Series I and Sun Solaris.

User management has been updated with an On-line Certificate Status Protocol, which covers X.509 certificates used for e-mail, and includes features such as certificate revocation and Internet Account Lockout, in the event of failed password entries.

The server now has a message recall feature, Notes 8 client provisioning, policy management controls for Lotus Connections applications and Directory Lint, a verification tool that checks directory integrity and suggests corrections.

Despite all these improvements, its focus on usability, and the fact that it is available on Linux, it is now two years since there has been any serious discussion of Notes/Domino's prospects against Exchange. Its loyal corporate user base may still be profitable, but no one is predicting big expansion.

Lotus will ship a 64-bit version of Domino in Notes/Domino 8.0.1, a maintenance release planned for later this year, which will also comply with FIPS 140, the US federal cryptography standard. The maintenance release will also include "Notes-on-a-stick", a feature which lets users carry around their entire Notes desktop on a Flash disk or other removable storage device.

IBM is already discussing Notes/Domino 9, codenamed "Next" which will let users choose Microsoft's Active Directory or any other Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) directory, instead of the Domino directory, along with other new directory and authentication options. Upgrades to the Web Access client are also planned, giving better support for other Lotus Connections activity software.