Is now the time to exchange Exchange?

Peter Judge: With Microsoft Exchange at a critical juncture, competitors line up - including the folk musicians at Samsung Contact.

Most segments of the IT industry start out with lots of products, and then tend to settle down to just one or two leading players. Over the last few years, it has been pretty clear that "collaboration" products -- as we have learnt to call enterprise mail and calendaring servers -- are going that way. At times it has even looked as if Microsoft Exchange will ultimately have the field virtually to itself.

But in such a situation, it is possible for the main player to make a mistake and open the door to rivals. And it looks as if Microsoft might just have done this by tying the next version of Exchange (code-named Titanium) to the next version of Windows (aka .Net Server). Users like to hang on for a good while before making upgrades to servers or applications, and they certainly don't like doing both at once. But Microsoft has said that Titanium will be a .Net release, and will rely on server functions that will only be in .Net Server.

Others have already castigated Microsoft for this, but maybe there was no alternative. Perhaps Titanium really did need functions that won't be there till .Net Server. Whatever the reasoning, the double-upgrade threat will cause a lot of people to think twice about Exchange. Microsoft's continued manoeuvrings on licence structures will have the same effect.

So now is the time for collaboration rivals to get their knives out and start carving into Exchange's market. But who are these rivals? Lotus is the biggest competitor, of course. Being bought by IBM and getting Big Blue's weight behind it, both Notes and its Web-related Domino, gave it the shot in the arm it needed.

At the same time, Novell continues to place its best efforts in persuading users to move to Groupwise with all the usual ammunition of analyst reports and cost-of-ownership calculations. From all accounts, Groupwise is a fine product, but people shy away from it because of their uncertainties about Novell.

Oracle's announcement that it is to launch a collaboration product to rival Exchange this year met with universal scepticism. We have heard this before from Larry Ellison, who is forever coming up with Microsoft-beating plans which come to nothing before he retreats to the security of his enterprise financial and database products.

Along with the thin client idea (which by the way is about due to resurface again as security and server technology is maturing to a stage that might support it), Oracle has come up with at least one other threat to produce a collaboration competitor. That one sank without trace, and there are plenty of people who are quietly confident this one will do the same.

There is also one other contender that many people may be overlooking -- largely because as far as most of us are aware, it has been shelved and forgotten -- and that is HP's OpenMail. Five or six years ago, OpenMail had a contented band of users but no very bright, strategic future. HP had no interest in business application software, and every intention of being Microsoft's leading systems partner. It did not make sense to keep OpenMail going. So it quietly withered, and was gently "end-of-lifed" by HP about two years ago.

I warm to the engineering team at HP who, since they include among their number folk musicians, responded as only folk musicians can. They created the OpenMail Lament, a ballad dedicated to their faithful friend. The result can only be described as an IT protest song, including barbs aimed at HP's chief executive Carly Fiorina. This is now online at our IT Anthems page.

I suppose the song may have been one of the factors that saved OpenMail. On the other hand, it may just have been the strength of the product, and the fact that it was available cheaply, that persuaded one of HP's main OpenMail customers, Samsung, to buy the rights to it and the UK-baed engineering team that was making it. It's now still available, as Samsung Contact.

While Notes uses its own clients, both Samsung Contact and the proposed Oracle solution make the sensible move of running a different server behind the Outlook client that most users are already familiar with, supporting the client through standard interfaces.

The race will go to whoever is fleetest of foot, who can manage to keep up with Microsoft's features and offer everything Outlook currently does -- and do it more cheaply. Samsung Contact architect Richi Jennings says that Contact will win because it uses the MAPI interface, not the rival but less functional IMAP. "We can be better than Exchange, but use the same client," said Jennings.

And then there are the additional features. Oracle is planning to include voicemail, to create a messaging solution which also replaces expensive and proprietary voice-messaging systems. The Oracle solution is based -- surprise, surprise given its owner! -- on a relational database. But this might turn out to be a weakness. The people at Samsung Contact are making much of their purpose-built message store, which is more efficient and scalable, they say, than a general-purpose database.

The other thing that Samsung has, which Oracle doesn't, is a user base. Jennings reckons Contact has an installed base of more than five million seats. While the product was at HP, it had already spawned a Linux version which -- with a bit more marketing from Samsung -- is developing a role as a collaboration solution for non-Microsoft shops, so it has some strength to back it up as it approaches the fray with Microsoft. Whatever the outcome, Titanium won't make much impact on the market for year, so it seems quite possible that Exchange will have less. rather than more, market share this time next year. Which is strange news for a Microsoft product that is a market leader.

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