Groupware, the New Monopoly Frontier?
Earlier this week, I met with two corporate representatives from Centrinity, a company that has somehow managed to compete with both Microsoft and IBM at the same time. The meeting spurred thoughts on why it is so tough to break into the corporate messaging and calendaring markets.
Centrinity makes FirstClass, a high-end groupware and unified messaging server that won the Personal Productivity category in our 2000 eWeek Excellence Awards program (see http://22.214.171.124/winners2000.jsp).
FirstClass provides e-mail, contact management, calendaring, shared discussion forums and electronic forms features. Just about every client ever created is supportedall the major OSes using a native client (a 3.7MB download on Windows), Web browsers, PDAs, WAP phones, even Telnet. FirstClass also has a unified communications module that can integrate with a PBX to provide a single inbox for voice mail, e-mail and faxes.
Its a comprehensive package that competes directly with Microsofts Exchange and IBMs Lotus Notes.
However, despite the fact that the company has sold 8 million seats deployed over 10,000 customer sites, FirstClass is little-known in the corporate world. Centrinity will offer a free five-user version of the software for download later this month as a way of increasing its exposure.
Groupware is extremely sticky software. Knowledge workers spend their lives learning and storing information in their personal information systems. Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer probably soak up a greater percentage of user computing minutes than any other programs. As a result, its difficult for many Exchange and Notes shops to contemplate using anything else.
However, inertia isnt a good corporate IT decision-making strategy, and its well worth a look at other approaches that might (or might not) be better options.
Centrinitys established market presence is at the very highest end of the market in terms of number of seatsthe software was developed by the original engineers of Nortel Networks Ltd.s Meridian Mail system, and it scales like Mount Everest. Centrinity specializes in sites with 10,000 users or greater that need multiplatform support and dont have a lot of administrator time to go around: universities, large school districts and governments. Its largest site is a 515,000-public-user installation run by the Government of Denmark.
Just in terms of e-mail, the largest online services run bigger networksa few million to a few tens of millions of users. Many universities use POP and IMAP-based servers with tens of thousands of userseither established open-source servers or commercial offerings like Openwave Systems Email Mx (www.openwave.com/products/messaging_suite/email_mx/index.html), Mirapoints Message Server (www.mirapoint.com/products/MessageServer.shtml) or Suns SunONE Messaging Server (www.sun.com/software/products/messaging_srvr/home_messaging.html).
Where the competitive forest hits the tree line is when organizations want calendaring, resource scheduling, group discussions and contact management from their messaging server in addition to e-mailand what large organization doesnt?
There are a handful of established stand-alone calendaring servers: Two that stood out as well-adopted in my research are Steltors CorporateTime (www.steltor.com/products/index.cfm) and SunONE Calendaring Server (www.sun.com/software/products/calendar_srvr/home_calendar.html), but this market is having a tough time surviving against Exchange and Notesits the bundling factor at work.
All the adopters of these packages I found were big universities (the University of Iowa, University of California at Irvine, Cornell University and so on), places that needed cross-platform support and likely already had e-mail systems in place, both factors that rule out Exchange and Notes.
One approach to the Outlook and Notes hegemony is to try to hitch a ride on the monopoly bus. Steltors OutlookConnector and Bynaris InsightConnector for Outlook (www.bynari.net/bynari/products.html) let Microsoft Outlook users stick with the software they know while switching out the Exchange back end for Steltors and Bynaris competing server products.
Ximian took the opposite approach of developing a mail client (Ximian Evolution) that not only is visually and procedurally extremely similar to Outlook, but can also be used directly with Exchange with the addition of Ximians add-on Evolution Connector for Microsoft Exchange (www.ximian.com/products/connector/).
Given their interdependencies, e-mail, contact management and calendaring software need to integrate tightly. I hope this doesnt mean that the two big integrated options on the market wont remain the only choices available. West Coast Technology Director Timothy Dyck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.