Review of Zimbra - a feature-laden Web Office Suite contender

Summary:Web Office hopeful Zimbra has been getting a bit of buzz recently. Dan Farber reported that Zimbra is adding a word processor and spreadsheet to its existing email/collaboration toolset.

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Web Office hopeful Zimbra has been getting a bit of buzz recently. Dan Farber reported that Zimbra is adding a word processor and spreadsheet to its existing email/collaboration toolset. And following in the future will be a presentation app and "other kinds of content editors". From Dan's post:

"Unlike Google, which appears to be cobbling together a bunch of Web applications, Zimbra is building an integrated set of Office-like applications with leading user interface implementation and deep mash up integration."

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So if their interviews are any indication, Imagine what such a feature set would achieve on a large scale - e.g. at Google! Zimbra has joined a small band of companies aiming for the brass ring of an integrated Office Suite. ThinkFree is another such company. Of course the big guns, Microsoft and Google, have yet to show their hand - although Microsoft revealed the equivalent of a poker 'Pair' with its relatively underwhelming small business offering, Office Live.

The Zimbra business

Dan Farber gave a good overview of Zimbra's business, concluding that the small enterprise-focused startup has great potential:

"...this small (20 people), well funded startup ($31 million) with a few handfuls of customers is making people pay attention because of its products. It's not hard to imagine a fellow browser-based platform like Salesforce.com and Zimbra hooking up to go after the incumbents' market."

Marc Orchant also reckons Zimbra could worry the software giants. So I thought I'd dive into the Zimbra product itself and see if it's all it's hyped up to be.

The Zimbra product

What Zimbra is currently calling its product is a "Zimbra Collaboration Suite" and its mostly an email/calendar program right now. The product is made up of a "browser-based AJAX client" and a "collaboration server". Alternatively you can just use the Zimbra server and pair it with another email client such as Outlook or Thunnderbird.

You can do a hosted demo on their website, to get the feel of the product. If you decide to go ahead with it, Zimbra is available as an open source download or a hosted edition (both are browser-based).

The email part of Zimbra uses the same kind of interface as Outlook, but its functionality is more along the lines of Gmail. For example it has a 'conversation' view that organizes emails by conversation topic rather than a folder view.

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Zimbra uses AJAX extensively, to make their web email app look and feel like a desktop one. For example it uses mouseovers to show metadata for items and words. This seems like a nice value-add, but it would mean changing my own usage habits with email. - because generally I don't think of it as a browsing experience. But this is a plus in my book, because it shows Zimbra is challenging the old Outlook-based email paradigm (which most other web email systems, with the exception of Gmail, still follow). Drag and drop is another AJAX touch - users can move their email messages from folder to folder this way.

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The Zimbra Mashup Experience

The real power of Zimbra is its APIs, which together with Zimbra's open source status makes this a potentially powerful development platform. The APIs enable developers to access messaging functions inside the Zimbra application, meaning external apps can hook into Zimbra's functionality. The example used in the demo is a travel application using Zimbra's APIs to "automatically create a calendar event for the person traveling". In addition to the inward API hooks, Zimbra also has interfaces for making outbound web service requests. Here's the example used in the demo:

"...the Zimbra application could recognize a shipment tracking number such as 792806493888 [a Fedex Tracking Number] in a message, make a web service call to the shipping vendor based on that number, and then provide more details about the shipment to the recipient of the message based on information obtained from the web service call."

You can even set it up to interact with another web service, from within the Zimbra system.

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Another example is clicking on a link within an email and up pops a Yahoo! Map, or a link when clicked opens a Skype call. Plus Zimbra has mini web apps embedded within its system, called "Zimlets" - for example an Amazon search box. The buzz phrase for all this is "enterprise mashups" and it's the kind of functionality that got the attendees of the last Web 2.0 Conference very excited back in October.

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The APIs and web services possibilities that Zimbra offers seem like a potentially thriving platform. So I guess the question is: are they being used? Zimbra has been running now for 6 months or so, but to be honest I haven't seen much evidence of external services hyping Zimbra as a platform.

Summary

Zimbra is packed full of features, such as the mashups and things like "Search Builder" and an RSS reader. It's an all-round impressive product and one can only wonder what such a feature set would be able to achieve on a large scale - for example if Google bought Zimbra! My feeling is that Zimbra has yet to really penetrate the market, so the big issue for them will be getting traction. If I was a betting man, I'd say Zimbra is a prime acquisition target for the likes of Google and even Microsoft.

Topics: Collaboration

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