Could Microsoft Close Up Zimbra?

While the Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo is still up in the air, that hasn't stopped many from speculating on what will happen to the many Yahoo assets and applications if the company gets taken over by Microsoft. But to me the most interesting area of potential conflict is Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which I recently reviewed. Zimbra is a full-on, next-generation e-mail and collaboration platform next to which Exchange looks like an old legacy system. So given that Zimbra is very much a competitor to a core Microsoft product line, one would have to assume that if Microsoft's acquisition of Yahoo goes through, Zimbra's days would be numbered. But Microsoft may find that Zimbra won't be that easy to get rid of. That's because Zimbra is also an open-source product and would be easily the biggest and most popular open-source product that Microsoft had ever acquired. And one of the core principles of an open-source product is that it can't be just tossed away, since the license lets anyone pick up the code and start using or distributing it. So what are the most likely options that Microsoft will take in dealing with their Zimbra problem if the Yahoo acquisition goes through?

Jim RapozaWhile the Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo is still up in the air, that hasn't stopped many from speculating on what will happen to the many Yahoo assets and applications if the company gets taken over by Microsoft.

But to me the most interesting area of potential conflict is Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which I recently reviewed. Zimbra is a full-on, next-generation e-mail and collaboration platform next to which Exchange looks like an old legacy system.

So given that Zimbra is very much a competitor to a core Microsoft product line, one would have to assume that if Microsoft's acquisition of Yahoo goes through, Zimbra's days would be numbered. But Microsoft may find that Zimbra won't be that easy to get rid of.

That's because Zimbra is also an open-source product and would be easily the biggest and most popular open-source product that Microsoft had ever acquired. And one of the core principles of an open-source product is that it can't be just tossed away, since the license lets anyone pick up the code and start using or distributing it.

So what are the most likely options that Microsoft will take in dealing with their Zimbra problem if the Yahoo acquisition goes through?

Well, the least likely thing that Microsoft would do is simply toss Zimbra to the curb. One, it would be bad business for existing Zimbra customers, who chose it for a reason and probably wouldn't happily jump to Exchange. More importantly, if Zimbra was shut down completely, it would accelerate the move by the community to take the open-source code and get a new, vibrant community going around the now free-from-Microsoft Zimbra.

Microsoft could also wholly embrace Zimbra and continue to support, develop and market the suite. This isn't as totally unlikely as it sounds. Given his past I have to think that Ray Ozzie gets a warm and fuzzy feeling when he looks at Zimbra. It's in many ways his type of product.

The next and probably more likely strategy would be to employ Microsoft' classic embrace-and-extend strategy. In this situation it would support Zimbra customers and continue to innovate on the suite. But subsequent versions would no longer be open source. And little by little the suite would be increasingly tied into standard Windows and Microsoft systems until eventually Zimbra just became a feature of Exchange 2010.

The last and probably most damaging option for Microsoft would be to let Zimbra slowly stagnate. In this strategy it would continue to exist, and Zimbra developers would continue to be employed by Microsoft, leading most likely to limited work on the open-source version by the community. And no Zimbra enhancements would take place on Microsoft's side, and in a year or two the suite would fade into obsolescence.

Really, any one of these strategies is possible if the acquisition goes through, but there is one fly in the ointment for any potential Microsoft plans for Zimbra. If the community acts now to make sure that the open-source version stays strong and vibrant, then Zimbra the software will stay outside of Microsoft's control. And all they would have acquired is the name and some skilled support personnel.