You've heard of the 'aha' moment? How about Microsoft and IBM's 'uh oh' moment?

You've heard of the 'aha' moment? How about Microsoft and IBM's 'uh oh' moment?

Summary: When I think of Microsoft's grip on the desktop market -- the one that's been so hard to break -- two products come to mind (neither of which is Windows).  The first is Microsoft Office.

TOPICS: Collaboration

When I think of Microsoft's grip on the desktop market -- the one that's been so hard to break -- two products come to mind (neither of which is Windows).  The first is Microsoft Office. 

Even though there's a version of Microsoft Office for the Mac, the demand for Office ultimately wags the Windows dog by the tail (to the benefit of Microsoft).  And, as most people know by now, there's been no shortage of news on the break MS-Office's grip front, particularly in the context of the Open Document Format (ODF): an open productivity suite file format standard that has caused Microsoft to make its own file formats far less proprietary (for a Massachusetts/ODF status update, check out OASIS general counsel Andy Updegrove's most recent blog).  The one-upsmanship in this small but growing cottage industry could very well eat larger companies alive. The theoretical result -- being able to work with electronic office documents (ODF or Microsoft-formatted) without the need for Microsoft Office -- could level the playing field and ultimately weaken Microsoft's franchise.  Based on how much people actually like Office (me included) Microsoft could still win handily if it wants to in a comply with standards compete on implementation world.

While office documents have been enjoying most of the limelight recently, there's another Microsoft stronghold that's traditionally been much more fortified against would-be competitors than MS Office ever was and it too is beginning to take some some heat: e-mail and calendaring.  Back in the very old days, after Microsoft acquired Network Courier (I used to run several Network Courier-based e-mail systems) and turned it into Microsoft Mail (this is pre-Exchange days), it also began work on MAPI (Messaging Application Programming Interface) (Tom Evslin where are you?  Oh, there you are.)  Among the many design goals of MAPI was the integration of e-mail and calendaring into a single client/server protocol. 

The two (e-mail and calendaring) are really a match made in heaven.  Since two of the key things that groups do are communications and meetings, they belong together.  It also makes perfect sense technologically and contextually.  For example, to receive an invitation to a meeting via email and to be able to RSVP that invitation without having to switch context out of email (for example, having an "accept" button right on the email) is right from a user experience perspective.  Email and calendars are also the two data types that people most want to replicate from email and calendaring servers to a variety of client-side technologies including software on their PCs, PDAs, smartphones, etc.   In other words, one server to do both (email and calendaring), one piece of software in each of our client side devices to take delivery of that email and calendaring data, and one pipe (the email/ calendaring protocol) through which to pass that data back and forth between the end points.  Anybody who has had to access their email/calendaring system (eg: Exchange Server or Lotus Notes) via POP3 or IMAP knows all to well how much it stinks to lose the calendaring part of the email/calendaring combination (POP3 and IMAP are for email, not calendaring).

So, when very early in the game, Microsoft's MAPI protocol covered both email and calendaring (and with the only real competition at at the enterprise level being Lotus Notes which early on worked off a protocol called VIM), it was no surprise that organizations started to adopt it en masse.  And as Outlook (the client side part from Microsoft) became a good email/calendaring solution on its own (capable of replicating data to and from other devices such as iPAQs and BlackBerries), Microsoft's email and calendaring solutions took root to the point that the barrier to switching to something else (particularly if that something else doesn't offer both email and calendaring) makes the switch either too costly or pointless.  Today, Microsoft's Exchange email and calendaring server remains one of the important reasons that organizations remain committed to other Microsoft technologies such as its operating systems (Exchange Server only runs on Windows) and Active Directory.  Now that there are some organizations looking to route out their reliance on Exchange Server and all that it depends on, there are solutions on the market that make migration possible without forcing companies to do painful swap-outs on the client and server sides at the same time  (eg: Novell's Ximian Evolution and Scalix's very AJAXian Linux-based email/calendaring solution). 

But now, somewhat out of the blue, comes a blog entry from TechCrunch's Michael Arrington (the one that inspired me to write this one) that spotlights the upstart of a new cottage software industry (replete with a listing of providers): AJAX-based calendaring systems.  This week, he's writing about SpongeCell.  Next week, it could be someone else.  Even more interesting is the innovation that's taking place around "platforms" like AJAX and Ruby on Rails.  Says Spongecell's home page:

No complicated tools. Just send new events or queries to Send "next" and we'll reply with the details of your next appointment.  Add us to your phone's address book.

Now, maybe this sort of solution isn't nearly as good as tying your Windows Mobile 5.0-based smartphone to your Exchange Server, but the innovative thinking regarding simplification of what can otherwise be a fairly complicated process is the sort of thinking that gets traction with the masses.  That there's a list of other providers each with their own spin on how to make group and Internet calendaring much easier spells trouble for the established providers such as Microsoft and IBM (via its Lotus division).  The problem isn't that their solutions aren't as good (or better in other respects).  It's that they simply aren't as nimble.  The pressure to innovate and the one-upsmanship in this small but growing cottage industry could very well eat larger companies alive should any one of their innovations catch on like wild fire the way Flickr for example caught everyone in the online photo business by complete surprise.  

"So, it's just calendaring" you say.  "It's not e-mail and just like you said David, it's the merger of e-mail and calendaring that makes solutions like those of Microsoft and IBM so compelling."  Right.  Well, I agree.  Going back to POP3 and IMAP's limitations to e-mail, if you just have one side of the email and calendaring duo covered, it might not be long until you feel like an technological amputee.  I've tried to figure out ways to fudge it.  For example, using my email/calendaring client to serve as the integration point of POP3 and iCAL in a way that simulates what I'd normally get through Exchanges or Lotus Notes.  It's not worth the effort.  But now, with email providers offering API access to their email services and calendar providers providing API access to their calendar services, it won't be long before there are a host of mashups out there that blend the two in a way that we can have our cake and eat it too.    Have our cake in that our email and calendaring is tightly integrated without needing a proprietary technology to do it for us.  Eat it too in that those solutions will offer us new innovations -- like the aforementioned idea of SpongeCell's -- that are addictive, but on a much more frequent cycle than any of the established providers could ever meet.

And that's the uh-oh! moment that IBM, Microsoft, and even others like Novell (with its Groupwise) should be having right now, let alone the proverbial aha! moment.

Topic: Collaboration

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  • point in order

    i know that you used some other products before MS mail, but did you forget about word perfect office?

    that was imho the 'first' email and calendaring suite integrated together.

    it was around well before ms mail going back to around 1990 and has evolved quite well over the years.

    not criticism and i'm sure there is a reason why you didn't include wp office and now groupwise.

    just a thought.
    • Apples & Oranges

      Word Perfect isn't now and never was a groupware solution. That's probably one of the reasons that it didn't maintain its leadership position. The e-mail client that comes with it (at extra cost) is limited to POP3 and IMAP4. It can't talk to Exchange natively and Corel doesn't have a back-end server app that could replace Exchange.

      Novell (Groupwise) dropped the ball years ago and never got their act back together. But if you're already committed to Notes or Exchange, there's no compelling reason to switch to another platform, especially when you're supporting upwards of 10,000 users at 300 sites.

      Microsoft "got it" back in the mid-90s when they started going after the back office. Make it simple to manage and easy to learn with a (relatively) intuitive GUI and it will sell. And sell it did!

      OK, the focus was on simplicity (compared to arcane command-line interfaces of most other NOSs) and feature-set in the early days and that did result in the security mess that we see today. But it was exactly that simplicity that lead to market share and like it or not has become the standard against which all others are measured.

      Being technically superior just ain't good enough -- and often enough the "competition" is half-baked when it comes out the door which just compounds the problem. Take Red Hat/Fedora RDS/FDS, the open source "competition" for Active Directory. It's the first directory service (after AD) that is multi-master. It's got some great features but the documentation is the pits. There's no way that a Windows admin would ever get it up and running with the documentation in its current state. Ditto for many Linux admins as well. The GUI is pretty good, but the user identifiers (SIDs in Windows) are not generated by the system -- the admin has to assign them manually and type them in when creating the user, group, OU, or other object. Very typical version 1.0 stuff.

      I expect that it will be a far better product in 2 - 3 years but that's also 2 or 3 more years for Microsoft to continue development of AD. Microsoft COULD pull a "90s Novell" and drop the ball, relinquishing the NOS space to someone else but I won't hold my breath waiting for THAT!
      • A very MS way of looking at things

        I read your apples and oranges post with a very puzzled look on my face. I do agree that Microsoft has the perceived technical superiority but in truth your belief in this befuddles me. I do have a Novell bent as you will discover from reading this but it is due to the fact that it provides a suite of products that have not let me or my customers down.

        WordPerfect Office is not WordPerfect as you reflect on it but actually was basically pre-GroupWise 4, let's say GroupWise 3 to keep it simple.

        In regards to functionality and support, especially in relationship to simplicity, give me GroupWise anytime.

        I have several customer sites that are well over 5000 users and they have only 1 maybe 2 part time email administrators.

        It takes less than a week to upgrade a multi post office site with the only downtime suffered being 5 minutes per post office.

        Now that's simplicity.

        And comparing all other directory services to AD, now come on, now you are showing how little your knowledge outside the MS world truly does extend.

        In regards to DS, Red Hat bought their DS because in the Linux space they are starting to lose ground to SUSE because of eDirectory. Sure they would love to replace AD but in the first instance they have to protect their current user base - those that are willing to run and benefit from Linux. And I can tell you from performance, scalability and functionality eDirectory still leaves AD and the other DSes in its wake.

        The other thing I do enjoy about Novell is they provide products that are not OS centric. Therefore my customers can choose which platform they install their products onto.

        Given Microsoft's predilection to intergrating all products deeply with the OS (non-modular approach) I can't see their applications being ported to other OSes in a hurry.

        In terms of technical merit Novell have not dropped the ball but their marketing sure leaves a hell of a lot to be desired.
        • Many Different Balls

          My over all point was with perceptions -- the perception being that someting called WordPerfect every was a groupware app. Not in my book, it wasn't.

          I work in a mixed environment -- Microsoft AD and Unix. My history includes Netware 2 - 4, Banyan Vines, several *nix variants and a CTOS network. (If you've even heard of THAT dinosaur then you're really up on your stuff.)

          I'm not a MS apologist, though that is where my current expertise lies. The size of our Exchange organization is as stated in my original post. We have one full-time admin and one part-time. That's with AD2k3 and Ex2k23. It wasn't always that easy. The reliability of the software and the hardware has improved dramatically over the past few years, though our processes probably have as well.

          My comments were also about the perceived superiority of the MS product. You could train an inexperienced person to add users to an NT 4.0 domain in about 5 minutes and another half hour or so usually sufficed for basic file shares. At its price point, business saw this as a BIG advantage.

          At the same time that MS was marketing NT, Novell was dropping the marketing ball on Netware. And in business, marketing is EVERYTHING. If you don't have market share -- be it a NOS or bed-springs -- you're going to die. If you have a useable product and GREAT marketing you can snatch the role of 800 pound gorilla.

          Ten to fifteen years ago, Netware was the 800 pound gorilla in the NOS space and if you were on the web, it was with Netscape. Why did that shift, in both cases to Microsoft? Marketing, pure and simple. OK, with some help from the programmers to put a pretty face on it.

          As to AD, I stand by my comment on it being the only MULTI-MASTER directory service until the recent debut of RDS/FDS. Everything else that I've ever heard of or worked with was strictly single master, i.e. one writeable controller that then replicated to all other controllers in the enterprise. Sure, you could connect to a read-only controller and add a user or printer, but the actual write to the directory occurred on the master and then was replicated back to the local box.

          Multiple masters was the big technical coup for MS over 6 years ago when AD hit the streets. Their marketing folks did a brilliant job of selling it. Without multi-master capability, there would have been no pressing need to move away from NT 4.0.

          And frankly, it was a lot of us old Netware guys that "got it" thanks to NDS and saw the advantage of a directory service in a multi-master environment, as well as a directory structure that wasn't quite so arcane. Bonus: You could administer NT/AD from the server console. Way cool! That was the last banana for the Netware gorilla.

          BTW, we migrated from AD & Exchange 2000 to 2003 a month after the old admin quit -- total new team. The AD migration was a non-event. On Exchange, of over 7000 mailboxes moved, less than a dozen had issues. Those were quickly resolved in a few minutes each save for one that took a couple of hours. System-wide downtime during the migration was exactly: Zero. Is it the best? Maybe, maybe not. Is it good? Damn straight!
  • Integration and differentiation

    I'm still waiting to see mail/calendar combination that works, never mind being worth using.

    "Huh?" you say -- "SexChange and Bloated Goats work." Nope. Neither one has the basic requirements that would get to the threshold of usability. The reason is, (drumroll) I have a life outside of work. I do [b]not[/b] want to give up the ability to use my PDA to schedule private time, and if I don't I can't sync up the PDA to the server at $WORK.

    Net result: I have to keep the PDA separate from the $WORK system -- and that means that I have to update the PDA calendar manually. Which in turn means that the whole "e-mail integration" business is of no value whatever.

    For those who find it easier carrying around separate electronic leashes for work and private life, or who [i]have[/i] no private life, I wish you well.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Give me a break...

      Why would your employer care about your personal PDA? If anything, I would say many employers would greatly prefer that there be no way for you to get your work emails onto any personal computing platform.

      In order for a requirement to be relevant it has to mean something to the people writing the check.
    • Huh?

      I don't get it. My personal and $WORK calendar are on Exchange and my PDA -- it's all one in the same. If I had to try and keep it all separate, I'd go nucking futs trying to keep track of it all -- and then my boss would probably schedule a meeting that stomped that long lunch with my sweetie. He doesn't see the details unless I want him to but he's always got the availability. And it also makes the point to him that I DO have a life outside of work and that family is trumps. Luckily, he sees the world the same way -- though if he didn't, I'd be polishing my resume...
    • Integration without exchange

      Having my own business, I would like to be able to integrate my descktop and laptop without having to go to the expense to purchasing Exchange. For me it's important to be able to track both the personal and business related "appointments". Having the freedom to take the personal time is why I am an independant, but you cannot ignore your clients.
    • Use the PRIVATE Box for Personal Appointments

      I don't know about other systems, but Outlook has a method for marking every single item - email, task, appointment - as private or protected in some manner. Since it provides this method of hiding these from people you do not want to view them, it is obvious that your concern about personal privacy has already been addressed, but you just didn't bother to read the Help file. Of course, this is not uncommon.

      The other replies to your rant are absolutely on track. There is NO reason NOT to use your $WORK system to synchronize with your personal PDA - unless your boss is weird and has *told* you not to do so. There is EVERY reason in the world to synchronize your personal PDA with the $WORK system so that you can more easily serve your customers and your fellow workers better WITHOUT putting yourself out unnecessarily. Use your tools more effectively and get more out of life with less hassle. =^_^=
  • More MAPI History


    Your kind mention of my role in MAPI led me to blog the history of how MAPI beat VIM not entirely on its merits (altho it should have). Tried to trackback to your post but that didn't take so this is a psuedo-trackback. My post is at
    • Thanks, Tom

      for a very entertaining and informative blog that serves to reminds us there is much more than meets the eye to becoming the dominant player. It sure sounds like the market ultimately decided, despite the endorsement (or lack thereof) from the governing body.
      Real World
  • I want AJAX to spur MS/IBM on

    Working for a large, global company that uses both MS and IBM products, I _want_ the AJAX innovation to make MS/IBM move. The innovation that the start-ups have is good, but likely not able to scale to global. MS/IBM have experience in enterprise, global apps.

    Now, I'm also not afraid to pilot some of the competitors to the email/calendaring to show MS/IBM that they are at risk...again, to help spur them on.
  • Not able to connect Spongecell and Outlook

    Until Outlook natively supports iCal (just a matter of time, imho), Spongecell represents less of a threat than you think it does. Yes one could go all-iCal for calendaring, but at this point, synchronizing calendars to handhelds via wireless carriers will cost extra $ unless the user has a generous data plan. Still, it'll be interesting to kick the tires further.

    Scott Mace
  • So what happens when SpongeCell goes down?

    What happens if SpongeCell's servers go down? All its users are left without any calendaring capabilities?

    Those of use who use Outlook+Exchange are often familiar with when your connection to the Exchange server goes down (or your entire network). But, all is not lost: you can use Outlook in offline mode. Could a web-based solution do the same? Maybe, with browser caching. But do you really think that a business is going to rely on a third-party web site for their calendaring, and trust them with their data?

    What the business would prefer to do is run the SpongeCell software locally, on their intranet. Does SpongeCell support this?
    • What happens when your Exchange server goes down?

      With a little more work, everything can be replicated locally to your local web server and database running on your machine - just like Notes and Exchange both do - with automatic fail-over.

      Early calendaring tools took a while to get that functionality, web-based systems will get it too.

      Checkout .Mac. It has been doing this stuff for years, the two things that stop it being bigger are cost and Mac-only-ness.

      Fix that any you have an Outlook/Exchange/Notes/Groupwise/whatever killer.
      Fred Fredrickson
  • That's not the point

    The point is not the current service or nascent provider. It's that someone could devise a hosted solution or one that companies can host themselves where e-mail is the transport mechanism without a need for proprietary protocols. Build the right central app and use HTML/RTF concepts like buttons embedded in e-mail, and walla!!
  • No, but it could be the end of Lotus Notes.

  • how many people really use calendaring

    I mean, i've even written applications to do this. But in reality, this isn't going to organise a disorganised person. If you're organised, a 50 cent diary + pencil will do. (and a phone).

    It amazes me that CIOs think that by installing a calendaring system, the people in an organisation will suddenly become more efficient.

    CRM systems are okay, but a lot of corporations in my opinion are focussing on the technology and not the people. A CRM system can help a good team perform, but the team is the thing that matters.
    • Lots!

      In a large enterprise environment, if you're in management, IT, marketing, sales, or legal you live and die by the calendar. If I need to organize a meeting with a dozen people (pretty frequently) I need a single place where I can go to see when the majority will be available as well as which meeting room is available. I don't have time to make a dozen calls to have them check their paper calendars, follow up on those that weren't available on the first call, find the keepers of the meeting rooms, yadda, yadda.

      My team is often scattered to the four corners of the earth and I need to be able to manage, communicate with, and schedule them quickly and accurately. Without the technology, we'd never get half of our work done.
  • MS Office will remain the king

    I remember the first time I ever considered MS Word. Like the
    majority of computer users, I was a Word Perfect user. But Word
    offered something that no other word processing program had
    at the time - WYSIWYG. The ability to edit in the print preview
    mode was new and I liked it. The only reason I started using
    Excel was that it came with Word! I was a die-hard Borland
    Quattro Pro user. But with every new version of Microsoft's
    Office, the programs got exponentially better, and before long I
    dumped Quattro too.

    And I don't think that people will switch away from Office
    whether or not they use an open document format. Most of the
    office suites out there today can read and write to Microsoft's
    proprietary formats, so what makes you think people would
    switch just because the format changes to an open standard?

    And let's not forget MS Access. I never realized how great that
    program was until I couldn't run it (I'm a Mac guy). I have File
    Maker Pro, PostgreSQL and MySQL, and they are all good, but
    none of them can open a native Access file on a Mac. At first I
    thought that the new database in Open Office (Base) would be
    the one that did it, but as much as it looks like Access, it isn't. In
    fact, it's the most useless database application I have ever tried
    to use. If you create a new database from a .csv file, you can't
    edit the table structure. And if you create a new database, you
    can't import a .csv file into it. Like I said, MS Office will remain
    the King.