Are Exchanges Competitors Really Pretenders?

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-12-16

Are Exchanges Competitors Really Pretenders?

There was a small ruckus created earlier this week when Microsofts Jeff Ressler said Exchange Server didnt face much of a threat from open-source competitors.

"We still worry more about Lotus than about the open-source providers, a lot of whom dont have a unified strategy [for trying] to try and address the bigger players in the market. There are interesting things happening with some of them, but they dont come up often in our competitive engagements," he said.

One of those who responded to the comment was my friend, Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems Inc.s chief officer of open source, who told Ziff Davis Internet News that Suns Internet Mail Server is more advanced than Exchange and is the mail server of choice for many large enterprises.

"Numerically, we service more e-mail accounts than they do," he said.

Service, huh? And its true, if youre a big service provider, the Sun server looks like the product of choice. You might even use their calendar server, provided you like Web interfaces or complex connections to Outlook clients.

Click here to read more about Exchange competitors.

So, of course, Microsoft Exchange Server has competitors. But, I think the average reader would have a pretty hard time naming any of them. On the other hand, heres a tip: If all you want is e-mail, there are many less expensive options than an Exchange server.

Ive always appreciated the ability of Exchange to support e-mail access from different places using different copies, even different versions, of Outlook.

Ive tried using POP and IMAP e-mail to accomplish this, but have never been able to make it work as well, or as easily.

Outlook allows me to move around without having to worry about losing or missing messages, regardless of how many different computers I use during the day.

That was reason enough for me to choose an Exchange Server as my personal mail platform, although I am vaguely aware that some Outlook pretenders, er, competitors may now offer the same functionality.

My Exchange Server also makes it easy for me to schedule meetings with Outlook users both on my network and across the Internet.

Next Page: Calendaring sets Exchange apart.

Calendaring Sets Exchange Apart

While my network is small, Ive worked in much larger organizations where Exchange made it possible to schedule meetings involving a number of people at the best time for all of them. Powerful calendaring is a good reason for choosing Exchange.

I keep lots of tidbits stored as notes on the Exchange server, which makes them available to me wherever I go. Likewise, my personal telephone directory and several shared contact lists.

Plaxo, which I know some people dont like, drops into Outlook and keeps my contacts up-to-date and makes it easy to add new people to my contact list.

Calendars and contacts are a pretty good reason to choose Outlook, as are public folders, which have never really caught on as well as they should have.

MS Exchange 12 beta brings unified messaging. Click here to read more.

I am aware that some of what Ive described is as much Outlook features as they are part of Exchange. Its easy to blur the line between client and server, which is what Microsoft wants us to do.

As Office 12 approaches, I am excited about the improved links it offers between SharePoint server and Outlook. Group collaboration has always been a heartbreaker for me, never coming close to reaching its potential to help us work better and more efficiently.

SharePoint server (not the portal server of the same name) will, in Office 12, offer the kinds of project and workgroup-based collaboration that will meet many peoples need for shared documents, calendars, contact lists, file stores, and so forth.

While SharePoint has a Web interface, integration with Outlook (and thus Exchange server) will probably be how most users experience these new collaboration features, which include other Office applications as well.

Like many, I am skeptical of Microsofts "unified messaging" concept, in which Outlook and Exchange provide voice telephony features as well.

I know people who have been using the ShoreTel VOIP product, which integrates with Outlook, and they have been very happy with it.

I just think it will be awhile before the majority of enterprises (and their users) will be ready to see their e-mail and voicemail merged.

Like I said, I am sure there are companies that compete with Microsoft Exchange, but besides simple e-mail and the few people I know using Lotus or Novell solutions, I am at a bit of a loss to name those competitors.

If all you think of when you think about Exchange is e-mail, youre not getting your moneys worth. But most people, while not taking full advantage of all its functionality, still find the Outlook/Exchange combination an essential part of their day and see no reason to replace it with anything else.

Key Exchange protocol flaw haunts Cisco, Juniper. Click here to read more.

Could a competitor design an "Exchange killer?" Well, several have tried over the years and none has come close. As long as Microsoft has control of most users desktops, Exchanges competitors, however smart or sincere they may be, will remain distant also-rans, at least in the United States.

Its just too difficult for a competitor to be "better enough" to make large numbers of Microsoft customers want to switch.

Are there international opportunities? If you want to give your software away, I am sure there are. Over the very long term, Microsoft could face a serious competitive threat from open source as second- and third-world nations invest in the technology they can afford.

But, that is so far in the future that I doubt Mr. Ressler spends any time thinking about it, though I am pretty certain Suns Mr. Phipps does.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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