opinion Yesterday I dipped my proverbial toe in the water of public opinion about the respective merits of different email platforms, and boy — did I get burnt. That calm-looking summer pool was actually boiling hot with conviction.
The issue was kicked off by the news that two major Australian universities had made contrasting choices about what email platform they would migrate their tens of thousands of students to.
Going along with the current trend, the University of Technology Sydney revealed it will migrate its students off an in-house Sun platform and to Microsoft’s hosted Live@EDU system. In contrast, the University of Melbourne picked Gmail.
Now, the fascinating thing about the Melbourne rollout is that the institution actually polled students before it made its choice, to ask what platform they would prefer. The answer was something that I have long suspected — if given the choice between Gmail and a Microsoft platform, most young people in 2010 would pick Google.
I’ve suspected this for a long time because of anecdotal evidence. As a journalist I heard of actual protests being held at the University of Sydney when it picked Live@EDU over Gmail. And I don’t know many young people who prefer Microsoft’s Live platform over the Google alternative. Certainly the early technology adopter crowd made its choice for Gmail over Hotmail — or even Yahoo — long ago.
However, what I didn’t expect was the vehemence of response to my comment to the effect that people would be crazy to pick Live@EDU over Gmail. Immediately, people came out of the woodwork on Twitter defending Microsoft’s entire email and messaging platform — Outlook, Exchange, the cloud Business Productivity Online Suite and so on.
As I further explored my ideas that many large Australian organisations would shift to Gmail if Google would guarantee the data could be hosted in Australia, the discussion intensified. People demanded to know what I had against Exchange, what was wrong with Outlook’s interface, why I thought that Gmail’s simplistic and rudimentary interface was better, why I wanted to host my email in Google’s ‘insecure’ cloud and so on.
Many claimed that the email needs of a small business like Delimiter could not be compared with the email needs of a large organisation. And the discussion ultimately culminated in a public claim by a long-time Delimiter reader that my journalistic integrity had been compromised. Well, I don’t think it has. And certainly I don’t go easy on Google just because I like some of its products.
What happened next was equally as interesting. I later issued a question to the Australian Twitter community to ask what email platform they preferred — and why. An absolute stack of responses came back.
Going through the responses this morning (you can see them here if you keep on scrolling over several pages), two clear trends can be witnessed. Firstly, the number of people who preferred Gmail over Microsoft’s Outlook/Exchange stack was substantial — at least double, potentially more, depending on how you classify the responses.
The second trend, however, was a little more interesting.
Many people stated that they preferred either Gmail for personal use and Outlook for work use, or that they preferred to use Gmail as the back-end hosting solution for their email, and then to use Outlook as the front-end client on their desktop.
Now, I’ve investigated this issue of corporate email platforms a great deal over the past year. I wrote a feature on cloud email in the Australian context earlier on in the year, and I’ve also been looking into the issue of Exchange 2010 upgrades, as well as hosted email with BPOS and even what’s happening with Lotus Notes.
My opinion about corporate email is this:
Firstly, if you are setting up a new organisation in 2010, you should clearly go with an externally hosted solution such as Gmail, Microsoft BPOS, or even just managed Exchange — which can be hosted in Australia. Lotus Live might be an option as well — but most people would argue against it these days — I haven’t seen any new Lotus installations in Australia for some time.
Email has become a commodity for all but the most highly secure organisations and should be outsourced to someone who has it as their core competency. It’s just not worth your IT department’s time to manage this — it’s costly, cumbersome and it can be done better by someone else. It’s a classic outsourcing argument.
For existing organisations, the choice is more complex. They likely have substantial investments in email infrastructure, and it’s a non-trivial change to migrate to a new platform.
If you are a flexible and dynamic organisation like AAPT or Mortgage Choice, or you have a large number of non-core users, or ’email light’ users such as a university student population, I would recommend you to outsource your email to Google. I believe most employees — especially young employees — prefer Gmail over Outlook/Exchange, and the holdouts can still use Outlook as the front end if they wish to do so — and many do.
Flexible and dynamic organsations in 2010 are strongly averse to capital expenditure and focusing on non-core competencies. They are usually attempting to hire young and talented generation Y staff, and Gmail’s story plays well into this picture.
This, of course, depends on whether your security policies — especially with respect to the US Patriot Act — allow you to do so. Google’s lack of Australian hosting will preclude most of the financial services, legal and government sectors from taking up their offering for the time being. That’s a simple reality which I’ve been pressuring Google on all year.
Secondly, if your organisation is using a legacy platform like Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise, I would strongly recommend you to put a business case to your board to migrate to either Gmail, or an on-shore managed Exchange platform if you need the security, added control, or corporate apps integration. Keep in mind that you can also run a combination of in-house Exchange, for highly secure accounts, and on-shore managed, or even globally hosted BPOS if you need more flexibility.
The reason I recommend a switch from Notes or Groupwise is that I am seeing a lot of pressure at board levels, as well as among employees, to switch off these platforms, especially for greater compatibility with third-party applications and mobile devices. My opinion is that Lotus and Groupwise are ‘legacy’ platforms — and it will often disadvantage an organisation to be running them.
I’ve seen a stack of Lotus to Exchange migrations over the past few years — Qantas, Coca-Cola and AMP to name a recent couple.
Lastly, for many (actually, most) organisations, internally hosted Outlook/Exchange is going to be the best platform in the short to medium term. It gives you way more control and flexibility over your email systems than Gmail does, and it mitigates all security risks. And Microsoft has done a lot at both the front-end and the back-end over the past few years to alleviate pain points with the platform.
I have been particularly impressed with how Exchange 2010 has much better storage functionality, and the ability to integrate with cloud hosting on a very granular level. Then, too, Outlook Web Access is now fantastic — almost on par with the desktop version, and supporting most browsers — and Outlook is no longer the overweight monstrosity that it used to be. And of course, Exchange will integrate well with other Microsoft tools such as SharePoint and Active Directory.
If you want complete control, Outlook is going to be the way to go.
One final note: I don’t know what to think of Zimbra. I haven’t investigated the platform enough yet — it’s kind of the ugly stepchild of email systems in Australia, yet one that appears to be gaining some traction.
I hope this clears up how I feel about email. Personally, I still believe that you can get vast productivity benefits from using Gmail. I couldn’t run my business or my life without it — and I constantly hear tales of people auto-forwarding all email from their Exchange work account to their Gmail for this reason.
However, for organisations, what solution you go with will be a little bit more complex — and that’s fine. Please feel free to use the comments function below to tell me why I’m wrong — I’ll be here all day ;)