Zimbra leads a path to AJAXed apps

You've heard all the talk about Web 2.0 and new Web-centric software platforms.

You've heard all the talk about Web 2.0 and new Web-centric software platforms. Some of it is abstract or warped by marketing departments hoping to appear fashionable. Richard MacManus tries to round up the definitions and apps. But, the meaning of Web 2.0 is best expressed in products. A new open source project and collaboration suite from Zimbra offers good insight into Web 2.0 and where "desktop" applications are heading. 


Zimbra co-founders Satish Dharmaraj (left) and Ross Dargahi (right) walked me through the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which consists of a server and an AJAX-based (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) client (Jon Udell has commented on Zimbra as representative of "AJAX futures").

Zimbra's desktop and wireless clients uses standard protocols like IMAP, POP, MAPI and iCal, and interfaces with common clients (via a migration wizard) such as Outlook, Apple Mail and Eudora. The zero-footprint client (no download) runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac using Firefox and IE. A screen shot gallery is here, and the company has a flash and hosted demos.

The AJAXed interface and design decisions make e-mail and calendaring much less clunky compared to other e-mail clients. For example, information, such as calendar, tracking numbers, CRM data, map info (see below) and real-time inventory counts, can be accessed with messages via a rollover. Skype is also integrated into the client--roll over name, get the phone number and call. These "mash-ups" that surface external information in a meassge, and the fact that it is a Web client that has the richness of a desktop client, is a good barometer for what's to come from any software developer on the face of the planet.



The Java-based server runs on Linux and the Mac OS, and  handles search, built in archiving and hierachical management, journaling for disaster recovery. browser-based rendering of attachment types, multiple device support (Palm, Blackberry, Mobile Windows, Goodlink, etc.) and integrated anti-spam and anti-virus software. It can also restore single mailboxes.

At this point 100 percent of the code was written by Zimbra developers, but the company expects to build more of a community. The Zimbra Public License Version 1.1 is a modified version of the Mozilla Public License Version 1.1. Here's the fine print:

This License does not grant any rights to use the trademarks "Zimbra" and the "Zimbra" logos even if such marks are included in the Original Code or Modifications.
However, in addition to the other notice obligations, all copies of the JavaScript User Interface Covered Code in Executable and Source Code form distributed must, as a form of attribution of the original author, include on each user interface screen (i) the "Zimbra Inside" logo and once for each user session (ii) the copyright notice in the same form as the latest version of the Covered Code distributed by Zimbra, Inc. at the time of distribution of such copy. In addition, the "Zimbra Inside" logo must be visible to all users, must appear in each user interface screen, and must be at least as large as the Zimbra logo is within the original Zimbra user interface. When users click on the "Zimbra Inside" logo it must direct them back to http://www.zimbra.com.

With few exceptions the code in Zimbra, including the AJAX toolkit, adminsration console and Exchange migration code, is open source. Among the exceptions are some licensed code from Verity and others and some scripts for automating functions. "Open sourcing the code means that we will have to innovate faster, and customers will have choice," Dharmaraj said. "We have to provide the most value, but no lock-in."

Dharmaraj said the cost will be about $30 per year per mailbox, including 24x7 support and higher end features, such as support for mobile devices. "It's comparable in price to Exchange, Scalix and Notes, but the value is a lot different," Dharmaraj said. He claims that the price presents about five times better value than Microsoft Exchange, mostly because the single server includes multiple features that are priced separately in the Lotus and Exchange configurations. A single, dual CPU server can support about 1,500 heavy usage users, Dargahi said. Zimbra sells the Suite as on premises server, but external hosting services could provide it to customers. 

Will companies throw out Exchange or other mail and calendaring solutions for Zimbra's mostly open source solution or from others who harness Zimbra's code? Not likely unless they are greenfield or considering an upgrade or platform switch.  But, companies like Zimbra that combine open source, AJAX, a bit of proprietary sauce and rapid innovation are setting the pace. Those who can't keep up will eventually be left behind.

Zimbra is not a complete collaboration suite, compared to what Microsoft, IBM and others offer. Instant messaging (presence management), content management and deeper IP telephony integration and conferencing are missing, but it's not difficult to imagine how Zimbra will evolve. Dharmaraj said Zimbra is working closely with the Mozilla Foundation (Firefox and Thunderbird), and its developers are looking at light weight content management, instant messaging (Jabber and XMPP) and public folders. The company received $16 million in funding and has $10 million left to see if it can attract customers and revenue.

Speaking of open source collaboration software, what's with the Open Source Applications Foundation's Chandler PIM?