Zimbra makes ALE, Calc and Write

The Zimbra Gang is at it again. After making waves with its mashed up, open source email/calendar collaboration suite and Zimlets, the company is adding new Web applications (what might as well be called Zimbra Calc and Zimbra Write) and ALE (AJAX Linking Embedding), a compound HTML document framework for embedding and linking AJAX components.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive
The Zimbra Gang is at it again. After making waves with its mashed up, open
source email/calendar collaboration suite and Zimlets, the company is adding new Web applications (what might as well be called Zimbra Calc and Zimbra Write) and ALE (AJAX Linking Embedding), a compound HTML document framework for embedding and linking AJAX components. "It's much like what Microsoft's OLE [Object Linking and Embedding] does for rich client apps like Office--embedding an Excel spreadsheet in a Word document--except you don't need a fat client," Zimbra CEO Satish Dharmaraj told me. The AJAX components adhere to a set of design patterns defined by an ALE specification.

Ross Dargahi, Zimbra's vice president of engineering, provides details on ALE on his blog:

The first version of ALE is intentionally quite simple and specifies basic serialization/deserialization semantics, and a limited set of rules for components to register and interact with an implementation framework. Over time we expect ALE become richer and more full featured as it is used in more diverse and rich applications.

Technically, ALE leverages two key capabilities provided by most modern browsers, such as FireFox, Safari, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0+.

The first is called “design mode”. Design mode enables the browser to become an HTML document editor, making it possible to create and edit HTML documents directly within the browser. This provides the ability to create a “mini-word processor” within the browser. To make a document editable inside a browser, “design mode” must be enabled on its document element (This is usually done by the following JavaScript code: document.designMode = "on";). It is important to understand that any HTML document element may be put into design mode. Specifically, this applies to the IFRAME element which contains its own document element.

The second capability provided by browsers is the ability to embed one or more IFRAMEs within another IFRAME that has been put into design mode. This is very important for ALE as it takes advantage of this by using such IFRAMEs as the containers for embedded components. Thus when a user inserts an ALE component into a document that he is editing, the ALE framework is in fact creating an IFRAME into which the ALE component is loaded. The ALE framework then manages the interaction between the outer document, and embedded ALE component, thus providing the object embedding capability of traditional applications to AJAX based applications.

Combined with technologies like Live Clipboard, which came from Microsoft, ALE addresses some of the shortcomings of Web-based apps. Dharmaraj said that his team is just starting to make the rounds, talking to Yahoo, Google and other about ALE. "We could have written a white paper on the technology seven months ago, but we wanted to make sure it works to show off how it works in real products." It's a wise strategy, given how competitors would be less likely to take the spec seriously, and spread FUD, if it were just vaporware. "People may agree or disagree with the ALE spec, but the open source community is a meritocracy, where the best ideas win out," Dharmaraj said.  

Zimbra's two "Notebook" applications, a spreadsheet and a document editor, will be joined by a presentation app and other kinds of content editors in the future, Dharmaraj said. Unlike Google, which appears to be cobbling together a bunch of Web applications, Zimbra is building an integrated set of Office-like applications with leading user interface implementation and deep mash up integration.


Editing a Zimbra spreadsheet component within a Zimbra word document

Microsoft Office Live has potential competition from players like Google, which have big scale and momentum, but this small (20 people), well funded startup ($31 million) with a few handfuls of customers is making people pay attention because of its products. It's not hard to imagine a fellow browser-based platform like Salesforce.com and Zimbra hooking up to go after the incumbents' market. 

Since the general availability of the Suite in February this year, Zimbra has a few dozen customers for the on-premises version (mostly small and medium enterprises, including 100,000 mailboxes across 10,000 H&R Block offices) and a few dozen hosting providers selling the service to mostly small- and medium-sized businesses, according to Dharmaraj. For enterprise customers (500 to 5,000 users) so far, Zimbra is four times better than Exchange in terms mailboxes per server, Dharmaraj claimed.

"We are fast heading toward a point where the majority of what you would do on fat applications on the desktop you can do with anytime, anyplace, OS independent, browser apps," he said. However, he is running into resistance in selling to corporate customers with the AJAX Web only vision. "Enterprises want an offline version, and it's an impediment to sale, even though 80-percent of the workforce aren't making airplane trips." Microsoft is certainly envisioning a world that integrates rich desktop and Web applications, and ultimately letting customers choose which (Windows) delivery model suits their needs.

Dharmaraj expects to have offline capability for the suite next year. "The architecture we are thinking about is a proxy Web server that runs on a laptop and a caching server. Users could log on locally and synch when they are connected."  Zimbra's email is MAPI compliant, so users can switch to other mail systems for offline usage and then autosynch with Zimbra.

Like the email and calendar, the Notebook apps code is open sourced. Beta versions of the Notebook applications will be available in mid-April, Dharmaraj said, and will be included in the $28 per user per year pricing for the Zimbra Collaboration Suite. Collaboration features are not yet built into the Notebook apps, but they partake of the Zimlet mashups. For example, data in a cell, such as a flight number, can be mashed up with a flight status Zimlet.

I asked Dharmaraj about building a Zimbra service for the mass of consumers. "We are focused on the enterprise and making money," he said. "Rather than focus on an ad revenue model that may sort itself out with a million users, we would rather work with larger properties, big ISPs and broadband and cable providers to be an arms supplier to fight that war." Zimbra has signed up the largest broadband provider in India, he said. If Zimbra continues to build out its suite and innovate rapidly, the company may have what it takes to become the alternative to Microsoft Office or whatever Google or some other flush newcomer throws at the market.

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