The battle for your email in 2009

One titanic struggle has loomed large over the SaaS and cloud landscape this year. But it hasn't been all about Microsoft versus Google. The battle for your email has to be seen in the context of the rise of a new generation of collaboration platforms.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor on

In my next few posts over the coming holiday period, I'm going to highlight some of the big themes that have been running through this blog over the past year, as well as flag up some important emerging trends that are going to be big in 2010. There are several stories I didn't get the chance to write up, too, and I'm hoping to mention some of those in the course of the next few weeks.

Looking back, it's obvious that one titanic struggle has loomed large over the SaaS and cloud landscape: the battle for your email. The year's most highly trafficked blog post here was the story in March, Microsoft pumps cloud, trumps Google with GSK, when Microsoft Online Services revealed a 100,000-seat deployment by pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) of its hosted Exchange, Sharepoint and LiveMeeting service. Of course, any headline that mentions both Microsoft and Google is always going to attract a lot of traffic, but the icing on the cake here was some rombustious comments by Ron Markezich, corporate VP of Microsoft Online Services, about Google's enterprise credentials, dismissing Google Apps as "a consumer service that's not enterprise-ready."

There's no doubt that Google desperately wants to be taken seriously as an enterprise-class provider. The Google Enterprise team, whose product portfolio includes Google Apps and extends across the search appliance and a couple of other offerings, spare no expense to get the word out about their corporate wins. I was astonished a few months back to have a courier hand-deliver a press release the day Google announced a 35,000-seat roll-out of Google Apps at business services conglomerate Rentokil Initial. The box also contained a white mouse made out of candy, which, since it was lying on its side (see pic), I assumed was deliberately designed to represent a dead mouse (Rentokil is best known for pest control). My tweeted reaction inadvertently pushed the boundaries of good taste, incorrectly describing it as a "candied dead mouse," which would have been totally gross.

Yet there's still a question mark over whether Google is spending as much on actual investment in beefing up its Google Apps infrastructure as it is on promoting news of its customer wins. I know Google can point to its huge, seemingly infallible search and ad serving leviathans as living evidence of its planetary-scale infrastructure capabilities (in stark contrast to Microsoft's recent 45-minute outage of its Bing search engine). But in a mirror-image of Microsoft's Bing problems, Google is still learning the ropes with Gmail (this year's fifth most trafficked post) and has not been immune to outages. On top of that, keeping the lights on is just part of the story when it comes to serving enterprise customers. They want account management, reporting and governance, and Google — along with the rest of the Web giants — still isn't very good at personalized customer service.

There's a tendency to see the battle for your email as a two-way fight between Microsoft and Google — between the established leader and the next-gen pretender — but Microsoft has played an accomplished defensive game by introducing its own hosted services, transforming itself into a cloud player and allowing customers to remain loyal to its existing products while benefitting from the SaaS model. You can see that as Microsoft taking the fight to Google's turf — while Google's introduction of a reseller channel was an astute strike at Microsoft — but both vendors are selling the cloud model.

In 2009, the real carnage has been among the second-tier groupware vendors, with IBM/Lotus and Novell both losing prime accounts to the big two online players. As Markezich noted when we spoke last month, three quarters of the Online Services division's enterprise customer wins "are coming from a non-Microsoft platform — predominantly [Lotus] Notes." Rentokil was "less than 20 per cent" on Microsoft Exchange when it plumped for Google to consolidate forty separate mail systems, said its CIO (and it took the decision long before Microsoft Online Services was available to try). Meanwhile, the extent to which Novell is hurting was revealed by its curious decision to publicly criticize City of Los Angeles for dumping Groupwise in favor of Google Apps.

Moving to cloud platforms has given organizations like these a long-awaited opportunity to decommission outdated, inefficient, unmanageable collections of legacy email systems without having to endure lengthy, complex and risky implementations of an on-premise replacement. In such environments, cloud wins hands-down, and the decision whether to go with Microsoft or Google largely comes down to cost, functionality and integration needs. The battle between the two vendors in 2009 has largely been a phoney war of words, accompanied by brief skirmishes on the sidelines against ill-equipped smaller foes. It will all get a whole lot more interesting and serious in 2010, especially with Cisco emerging from earlier setbacks to join the fray, along with a number of other contenders.

The battle for your email in 2010 will also go beyond the question of which vendor will take over your email servers, for email itself is being challenged by other forms of communication. Email still has a role — just as physical mail continues — but it is ill-suited to activities such as sharing data, sending and receiving status updates, and real-time or threaded collaboration. The battleground is shifting to the broader landscape of collaboration platforms that handle email alongside these other channels of communication, and the vendor that delivers the best way to bring these various channels together will have a competitive advantage. In that respect, Salesforce.com's announcement of Chatter last month may prove a surprisingly inspired strategic move.

Collaboration goes right to the heart of what the Web is about, and I can't believe that email (literally, an electronic embodiment of what we used before the Web existed) is going to remain the mainstay of how we communicate with each other in the Web era. Among all the reasons why you would want to put email in the cloud — better threat protection, more powerful search, lower storage costs and simpler archiving, to name but a few — perhaps the most important is being ready to migrate from email to the next generation of business collaboration, whatever that turns out to be (and no, I don't think it's going to be Google Wave, except for certain very specific use cases).

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