Back when the beta of HotMail first came out in 1995 (long before it was a part of Microsoft), I was working for PC Week (now eWeek) writing a column called Reality Check and I remember analyzing its revolutionary ad-based model as a potential new way for businesses to cover the cost of their email systems. I wondered whether or not businesses might go along with the idea of having HotMail handle all their email service provision if the only cost of going that route was the display of online advertising in front of employees. Google already has an identity management system.I took it a step further and wondered whether or not HotMail might even pay money to businesses for the right to run their email systems and force employees to look at ads. Why not? Email systems are not cheap to run. Are ads that intrusive? Some IT managers scoffed at the idea. Others thought it was a pretty cool concept that could make sense given the potential savings (or earnings). There is perhaps no better candidate for outsourcing than your email system. In fact, I'm willing to bet that better than 90 percent of the businesses currently insourcing their email can't legitimately justify the practice. Are you one of them?
This week, Google's GMail product manager Stephanie Hannon blogged that the company was piloting email provision for organizations under their own domain name (as opposed to gmail.com). As a part of its pilot initiative, Google is working with San Jose City College. At the end of her post, she offers organizations and opportunity to apply to be a part of Google's beta testing of the service. I immediately signed up one of my domains but I have to wait to see if I get approved for inclusion in the program or not. Other Internet behemoths offer this service as well. Yahoo has its free email system. But, if you want Yahoo to host email under your company's domain name, it will for a fee as a part of its small business offerings.
So, when Google suddenly starts dropping hints that it could be entering the hosted email market, the first question (naturally) is, under what business model? Will Google charge for the privilege or, might there be an Ad Sense-based model where Google's contextual advertising delivery system basically subsdizes the cost of corporate email? I contacted Google to find out where it might be heading and so far, mum is the word. According to company officials, its plan is to use the beta test to answer questions just like that one. When I signed my domain up, I was asked if Google could contact me to get more insight regarding my needs (yes, by the way). But as a regular user of GMail (I use it for email threads that I want to keep separate from my job), there are other questions that Google must be prepared to address should it go big time with its service (questions which the company says it isn't ready to answer). Here are a few but perhaps you have some too:
- GMail has some APIs that are available to third party develpers. Once those APIs are essentially behind a corporate firewall (virtually as it may be), from a mashup/API perspective, that raises the possibility that all sorts of other messaging-system reliant applications (eg: CRM systems) might be built on top of GMail. Does Google have any such applications in mind or does it know of third party developers that might be considering the opportunity? Theoretically, with a few more task-specific API-enabled back end systems added to its portfolio, Google could make a huge thrust into the corporate market taking on the likes of Microsoft or even Salesforce.com.
- Going out the door, once GMail enables multiple people under one domain, the opportunity for other collaborative features (eg: group calendaring, shared project space, storage, etc.) comes up. Think Microsoft's Groove. Might Google ship such features once it comes out of the beta for email hosting?
- Working with Internet users is one thing when providing a free email system. For example, even though GMail offers information on how to access an inbox with Eudora, it doesn't work very well. But the email service -- including POP3-based access to it is free-- and the information on how to access a GMail inbox with third-party POP3 clients (Outlook, Eudora, etc.) is provided more as a courtesy. Google really isn't on the hook to officially support integration with a bunch of third party products. But, hosting business email systems is a whole 'nother beast. Business will demand better support. What sort of support will Google be prepared to give the business market and how much, if anything will it cost?
- GMail doesn't offer folders the way traditional email systems do. Instead, it uses a lableling and archiving system that essentially performs the same role that folders perform from an organizational perspective. In some ways, it's more powerful because a single item can be filed under multiple labels. The POP3 email retrieval protocol has no notion of folders or other organizational principles (like labels). But the IMAP protocol does. Will the business version of GMail offer IMAP support and if so, will it find a way to tie it into its unique labeling system?
- When driven by the same identity management system, behind the firewall instant messenging and VoIP services go hand in glove with e-mail. Google already has an identity management system. Oh, and it's already blending its GoogleTalk with its email systems. Will that integration follow domain-independent GMail into businesses and how disruptive will that be to everyone from IBM to Cisco?