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Will Google replace Microsoft Exchange?
Benjamin J. Higginbotham
I know everyone seems to think that Google is going to start eating into Microsoft Office, but I think it's going to be consuming the sales of Microsoft's flagship communications product first: Microsoft Exchange.

Google recently released IMAP support for GMail which allows users to keep their mail clients and mobile devices in sync with the GMail servers much the same way Exchange server does with the MAPI protocol. Today GMail is no match for Exchange, but by adding IMAP support they are one step closer to a full Exchange server replacement.

With Microsoft Exchange Server business users can keep their mailbox, contacts and calendars in sync between multiple computers running Outlook as well as mobile devices that support Exchange Active Sync (or EAS). In addition the EAS clients get access to push e-mail meaning that as soon as the message hits the Exchange server and is processed, it will be pushed to the users mobile device for delivery rather than scanning for messages every 15 minutes (for example). All of these Exchange server features are great and valuable in a business setting, but many of these features are not supported on non-Outlook mail clients and mobile devices that don't have EAS support are out of luck. In addition, Exchange is scary expensive when compared to other servers such as Merak or Communigate Pro.

IMAP is the first step in replacing Exchange server and Google probably knows this. Part of the IMAP protocol is something called IMAP Idle which keeps a server connection open allowing for push e-mail to devices that support it. IMAP Idle is the next step in the path for Google to replace Exchange. The iPhone supports push e-mail to/from Yahoo! e-mail via IMAP Idle but for some reason ignores IMAP Idle on other servers that support it such as Merak, Communigate or even Exchange. Other mobile applications such as FlexMail and ChatterEmail support IMAP Idle for Windows Mobile and Palm devices. Desktop clients such as Thunderbird and the new version of found in Leopard will also include IMAP Idle support. With these IMAP Idle clients on mobile devices and computers we're able to get instant e-mail notification the moment the message hits the server, much the same way you do with Exchange and Outlook but at a fraction of the price or in the case of GMail, for free! That is, for free once GMail supports IMAP Idle.

We've tackled push e-mail support, but what about calendar and contacts? There's an open standard that's called SyncML which should take care of this nicely. SyncML allows the two-way synchronization of calendar, contact and task data from a handheld and computer or possibly from an online service provider such as Google. Many Symbian devices already support SyncML and rumor is that Palm will be dropping hotsync in favor of SyncML in their next OS due out the 12th of never (I saw this rumor on Engadget in 2005 so, uh, yeah). There are Windows Mobile add-ons that should also support SyncML. It would be possible to add a contact to a SyncML enabled handset and that contact would auto-sync back to Google which would also auto-sync back to the desktop app. SyncML also has a bunch of other features to facilitate backup options and syncing of other media objects which would in theory allow this service to end up being more powerful than what Exchange offers today.

At this stage Google only needs to implement IMAP Idle and SyncML to replace a very large portion of what Exchange offers. Some of the very few things that would not be supported are Active Directory synchronization which in a pure web world won't matter too much (all that login info could be done using a Google login) and multiple colors for messages (MAPI supports many different color flags and IMAP only supports flag on or off but no color). The biggest hurdle has already been achieved, now it's up to Google to keep it going. With Google Apps for business this becomes a much more powerful solution that's remote, offers almost all of the same functionality as Exchange, requires little to no IT staff to maintain it and since it's based on open standards has the ability to run on just about any device, oh yeah and a business can control the user accounts too (as opposed to the free version).

There's one final step that's missing which I have yet to figure out. I read over on WMExperts that Microsoft is releasing their Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 (yes, that's the actual title) which will allow provisioning of mobile devices remotely much like a Blackberry. I'm not sure I see Google trying to tackle this beast. Will Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 be the saving grace for Microsoft Exchange Server, or will the tie between the two products be too weak and we'll end up with Google Apps controlled by Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008? Even so, if Google did support IMAP Idle and SyncML would you or your company ever consider breaking from an Exchange environment?


1. Posted by: William Lefkovics on October 25, 2007 3:06 PM:

Google is at the back of the line of collaborative solutions that are slowing the growth potential of Microsoft Exchange. For example, Zimbra claimed recently that about 50% of their 6 million paid mailboxes migrated from Exchange Server platforms. Lotus Notes 8 is the best one yet and actually has a usable client - that's a big change for them. Scalix, OpenExchange, PostPath are all more feature-rich than lowly 'IMAP-enabled Gmail'.

Merak, IMail and the like are not as scalable as other solutions. Their market arguably is more aimed at SMBs. That Merak is cheaper is hardly relevant when you consider it has far fewer features and does not scale well to a large number of users with huge (2GB+) mailboxes.

I won't even mention the lack of privacy offered by the Googly folks. I don't know of a healthcare or law firm that wants to potentially expose their usage patterns to the information behemoth.

Google is great for one thing... my shares have appreciated nicely.

2. Posted by: Benjamin Higginbotham on October 25, 2007 3:55 PM:

You're right. Simply adding IMAP support won't create an Exchange replacement. Adding IMAP Idle for push support, SyncML for calendar/contact syncing and a few tweaks in their collaboration features and we may have something.

For Fortune 100 companies I don't think we'll see a huge migration to any new platform soon. The extremely small business market (SMB of 10 or less people) are probably already running exchange alternatives. As Google improves upon their tools I can see it start to eat in to SMBs of 100 or fewer users. It could even reach into the 1000 or fewer companies.

Don't underestimate the power of a brand like Google and their ability to sneak in and start eating marketshare. When we take a step back and look at the whole package, GMail, GCal, Docs and Spreadsheets we start to see a bigger plan that could very well threaten Exchange.

Or it will end up never being used and just a tool for consumers and really small companies. Only time will tell.

3. Posted by: Mike Hays on October 25, 2007 5:36 PM:

"The extremely small business market (SMB of 10 or less people) are probably already running exchange alternatives."

Benjamin, I disagree with this statement. For email, yes, there are solutions like Yahoo! Mail that are fairly good, and using Outlook Express is common. But there is nothing out there for small biz that offers collaboration tools like group viewable personal calendars, group calendars, scheduleable resources, contacts, and public folders in as neat and integrated a package as Exchange with an Outlook or Outlook Web Access client. The current "alternative" for small businesses with enough capital is Microsoft Small Business Server which includes Exchange, Outlook, and OWA.

I can't find any other solution, free or expensive, that comes close.

4. Posted by: Ed Kohler on October 25, 2007 6:55 PM:

Mike, you're probably right. Zimbra may be close. Google's not there yet. However, when it comes down to what a group of 10 or less really depend on, email with integrated contacts and calendar covers things for most businesses.

5. Posted by: max on October 25, 2007 8:28 PM:

I believe that few companies are using Exchange because they like the application. Exchange is widely used because end users demand what it has to offer.
It is about Collaboration, Outlook, shared calendaring, the Global Address List, mobile phone support, cached mode access, public folders…and do not forget single sign-on that gets you access to everything else on your network.
Replacing Exchange only solves the back end problem and would face resistance from the users unless they get the same things. If Google wants be considered by real companies that rely on email to do their business they have to offer seamless support for Outlook and mobile devices and also offer migration and co-existence. Sure a small environment with 5 or 10 users may be willing to give up functionality for a lower cost but not larger businesses or companies that have been using Exchange for a while.
What happens to all the calendar entries and contacts they have been collecting in Exchange?
Benjamin is probably right about SMBs of 100 or fewer users but beyond that you need to have seamless migration and comparable features such as mobile device support. Zimbra and Scalix did not have much success in the enterprise with their plug-in. Zimbra did OK with EDU because you are talking about quarters and semesters not years of business data being at stake. Scalix was just not good enough because of the Outlook plug and weak mobile support.
Would a company of 500 users attempt to switch everyone from Exchange to Google mail over the week end at once? No co-existence and no option to go back.
Don’t get me wrong. Exchange needs to be replaced. Microsoft has been stuffing more data, more users and more features in the same under powered Jet database.

6. Posted by: SEO Experts India on February 1, 2008 1:51 AM:

Its still a billion dollar question :)

7. Posted by: Skyman on May 12, 2008 7:51 PM:

"Zimbra claimed recently that about 50%..." is just fun with numbers. It doesn't really mean anything.

My only concern is that those small companies often have lower quality Internet service and when the connection goes away they don't even have intra-office email - including access to calendars.

8. Posted by: Whythorse on October 4, 2009 2:48 AM:

No, but Open Source Exchange Replacement will. It's an open source conglomeration of apps that does everything exchange does.

9. Posted by: Whythorse on October 4, 2009 2:48 AM:

No, but Open Source Exchange Replacement will. It's an open source conglomeration of apps that does everything exchange does.

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