Staid e-mail gets social, mobility refresh

Enterprise e-mail clients may not appear to have changed much, but firms in Singapore are implementing innovations under the hood and integrating social and mobility to the business communications tool.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor on

Enterprise e-mail continues to be an integral communications tool for many business users in Singapore, though some might say innovation in this area has come to a standstill. However, organizations in the country are tweaking their e-mail tools for the better with vendors refreshing their products.

The importance of this business communication platform was highlighted earlier this month when various Singapore ministries and government agencies were unable to access their e-mail. One civil servant told ZDNet she could not do anything while the e-mail service was down, and could only draft messages without sending them during the downtime which lasted over five hours. Besides e-mail, intranet services were also down. 

Song Chuang, research director at Gartner, agreed there may be some truth to how traditional enterprise e-mail clients used here might not have seen much innovation in recent times. In some areas, though, there have been updates to the communication platform which are focused on the back-end and not always visible to the end-user, Song said. For instance, he noted the improved sync and layout optimization of e-mail messages presented on different devices and screen sizes.

"If you sync an e-mail message to a few devices and compare how the message is shown on the different mobile platforms, you will likely find very different levels of layout optimization," he explained. "Some of the clients clearly make much better use of screen real estate, and this isn't just about what font size was used."

Similarly, e-mail setup wizards which use an e-mail address and password to automatically configure a user's e-mail account and access have also been improved, and are now expected to work every time. "Just a few years ago, this was a major selling point for many vendors," he noted.

Making e-mail intuitive

Doug Farber, managing director at Google Enterprise Asia-Pacific, concurred. He said when it comes to Web-based productivity tools such as Gmail, which is part of the Google Apps productivity suite, the company is experiencing a period of rapid innovation.

Gmail was inspired by a user who said she was tired of searching e-mail messages buried deep in her inbox, so Google built a new client which leveraged its search tool to be more user-friendly, Farber explained.

Since then, its innovations in this space have continued to be user-focused such as its Priority Inbox feature, which helps users see the more important messages first before others. The Forgotten Attachment Detector is another tool which reminds users to attach a document based on phrases in the e-mail which suggest a file needs to be included in the message, he added.

The U.S. tech giant has also focused on the ongoing mobility trend by introducing offline access to Gmail so people can work from anywhere, as well as Drive which allows users to store their documents in the cloud. "We take an 'innovate then iterate' approach to all our product development, and so are consistently rolling out new features," Farber said.

Microsoft, too, believes e-mail innovation is "alive and well". Alexander Oddoz-Mazet, director of its Business Productivity Solutions in Asia Pacific, said the company's aim is putting users at the center of everything and enabling them to access messages anywhere, including e-mail and communication and social tools.

The revamp of Microsoft Exchange was an example of this commitment, Oddoz-Mazet said, as it improved efficiency and collaboration through deep integration across Office applications such as Outlook, Word, Lync, and SharePoint.

He added many customers were asking for an easier way to find e-mail, instant messages or SharePoint information in their organizations, and with the new Exchange, Microsoft is touting an improved search and indexing capability for enterprise users.

E-mail not for document collaboration

Another vendor, IBM, noted that certain innovations for the e-mail client may not be beneficial to end-users.

Christopher Blake, Asean collaboration executive at IBM's software group, said the use of e-mail had evolved beyond its original intention as a communication tool but in some cases, the tool is utilized inappropriately as a collaboration and document-sharing platform.

"E-mail remains a very effective communication tool, but IBM believes using e-mail for document collaboration is actually ineffective," Blake said. "Time is wasted through increasing the number of e-mail sent and received, and critical data is locked and siloed within people's inboxes. These, in turn, inhibit others from having access to necessary or relevant corporate knowledge and information."

Big Blue illustrated its vision for the e-mail client when it released IBM Notes and Domino Social Edition 9 in March this year. Its key feature is the centralized file-sharing and collaboration capabilities, whereby users can see the list of all files available to them from the client.

"These files are not stored within the e-mail system, nor are they buried within mails in a person's inbox, or on the desktop. Instead, they are centrally stored and managed on the social intranet function provided by IBM Connection Files," Blake explained. "No other enterprise e-mail vendor provides a single central listing of all available files from within the inbox."

This feature will likely prove useful in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, where the mobile workforce is influencing the way businesses operate by moving beyond e-mail and calendaring to "social business collaboration", he added.

Data security increasingly critical

Beyond the social and mobility innovations, Gartner's Song said an emerging feature for e-mail clients is the ability to containerize, or separate, work mail from personal ones. "All the leading mobile device management vendors such as Airwatch, Mobile Iron, Good Technology and Citrix, are now shipping containerization as a feature," he noted.

Blake agreed, and pointed out IBM Notes Traveler provides the same control over sensitive business data while adhering to important, centrally defined and managed corporate security policies such as encryption and access control.

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