Scaled-up hosted services challenge the old collaboration paradigm

Linux-based "Exchange killers" show promise, but WebEx might have the secret sauce

The collaboration landscape saw some improvement last year, as 2005 was the year challengers to Microsoft Exchange made their case, podcasting became a national pastime, and WebEx's management realized that small customers have money, too.

It might also have been the year that we glimpsed the beginning of the end of the traditional "integrated collaboration environment." What other explanation is there when two of the top three collaboration products release major upgrades -- coincidentally, both IBM Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise ratcheted themselves to Version 7 within weeks of each other -- but to little more coverage than rewritten press releases and brave-sounding quotes from the conference calls?

Although both IBM and Novell sputter on about solid customer bases, the former's customers are tired of one slideware initiative after another, while those of the latter still have reason to wonder whether there's anything more to collaboration than e-mail and IM.

IBM's talk of an eighth release -- and perhaps a ninth -- of Notes does little more than tease users while they wait for a Workplace that may never arrive. Meanwhile, Novell is struggling to keep its customers long enough to get them moved over to GroupWise-on-Linux.

It's no surprise that some of the loudest buzz this year centered around Linux-based "Exchange killers." While vendors such as Scalix and Zimbra strove to clean out the chunk of the market that requires more than Postfix from their collaboration tools, Microsoft appeased its own customers by delivering a significant service pack for Exchange Server 2003 and announcing the first trials of Exchange Server 12. That would be enough for most people, but on top of that, Microsoft bought Groove Networks and put Ray Ozzie in charge of its collaboration efforts. If Microsoft doesn't actually own the collaboration market, it's so No. 1 that there really is no No. 2.

But the collaboration sphere isn't a permanent satellite of Planet Redmond. Hope appeared when WebEx leapt into the micro-enterprise market by acquiring The new WebExOne division delivers the "asynchronous" side of collaboration -- calendaring, database management, and document management -- in effect taking a credible intranet-as-a-service package and adding a new $49-per-month Web conferencing feature. If anything's going to kill Exchange, it's a scaled-up version of these services.

Although cynics have tagged podcasting as a flavor of the month, it also appears to be the future for one-way content delivery to niche audiences. The problem remains how to make money narrowcasting in a billing structure built for broadcasting.

Meanwhile, businesses continue to inch toward unified messaging. Although the Holy Grail of a single inbox for e-mail, instant messaging, and voice sounds appealing, customers are taking their time in adopting the concept. Some of this reluctance must stem from the inevitable realization that unified messaging still requires a PBX, as well as a CT (computer telephony) server to connect the PBX to the mail server. If vendors expect widespread adoption of unified messaging, they are living in a dream until they can deliver a solution that requires less hardware instead of more.

In short, more questions were asked about collaboration during 2005 than there were answers. Customers are still trying to decide whether e-mail, instant messaging, and voice mail should be no-frills operations, or if they ought to offer every service conceivable at the expense of compatibility. But there's a future in collaboration-as-a-service; agile vendors such as WebEx are infinitely better placed to deliver something usable than the dinosaurs of years past.