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Irwin Lazar
Irwin Lazar
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Digging into WebEx Mail

At last week's Collaboration Summit Cisco introduced WebEx Mail, a hosted service built upon its PostPath acquisition. WebEx Mail represents Cisco's first foray into a market dominated by Microsoft and IBM, with emerging hosted challengers including Google, Zoho (as well as Microsoft and IBM's own hosted offerings) and Zimbra's on-premise server. Like other hosted offerings, Cisco bundles security services such as spam and virus filtering into its service. WebEx Mail offers an intriguing option for current Microsoft Exchange shops, but also has some limitations that prospective buyers ought to be aware as they conduct their evaluation.

The story behind WebEx Mail is simple: Deliver a hosted messaging service that easily integrates into current Exchange environments, addresses Microsoft's shortcomings around mailbox size management, and reduces total cost of ownership. With WebEx mail Cisco hopes to attract customers who have extensive Exchange deployments and are thus more likely to consider Microsoft's collaboration and communication offerings since they are already a "Microsoft Shop".

Cisco's offering squarely hits its target. By supporting Microsoft's MAPI protocols, WebEx mail requires no change to a user's client environment. Cisco claims WebEx Mail supports all Outlook clients and plug-ins; meaning migration from a back-end on-premise Exchange server to WebEx mail requires no changes for the user, a huge plus for IT shops looking to avoid disruptions. Mailbox sizes start at 5 GB, with up to 35 GB optionally available, allowing users to eliminate complexity of PST files to reduce mailbox sizes. And at $5.00 a user, plus $1.00 for BlackBerry support, Cisco presents a compelling cost argument to those struggling with Exchange management costs.

Cisco also delivers a sophisticated web-based client, built on AJAX, and according to Cisco delivering a feature set closely matching the thick-version of Outlook. And, Cisco's web client allows users to easily group similar messages into communities, which can be synchronized with Cisco's Enterprise Collaboration Platform (more on that in another post).

So what are the drawbacks? With Cisco's stated goal of attacking the Exchange installed-base, Cisco offers the same support for Mac / Linux users as Microsoft - a second-class client, or ActiveSync synchronization between Snow Leopard equipped Mac's mail/calendar/address book and Cisco WebEx Mail. Or, Mac users can stick with Entourage until Microsoft ships Outlook for Mac in 2010. Additionally, Cisco noted that Lotus Notes customers wishing to migrate to WebEx Mail would require custom consulting to move their mail stores and calendars into it's service, meaning additional costs and complexity. Cisco could have gone after the growing Mac end-user market (Nemertes notes 33% of companies are increasing Mac support), instead only IBM Lotus offers a single client strategy for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

While Cisco touts its robust web client for non-Windows users, unlike GMail Cisco's web client doesn't have off-line capabilities. Finally, in leveraging Outlook, Cisco's client strategy doesn't support extensible application development and plug-ins as Lotus does through Eclipse.

Will these shortcomings matter to the majority of the market that relies on Exchange and Windows desktops? Probably not. And for those organizations, WebEx Mail presents a compelling alternative to continuing to invest in on-premise Microsoft Exchange servers.

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