Yahoo And Zimbra: Walking The Line Between 'Killer App' And 'Endangered Species'

Yahoo is clearly gunning for big game with its next-generation Webmail technology Before the company bags an elephant, however, it will have to avoid blowing off its own foot.
Yahoo is clearly gunning for big game with its next-generation Webmail technology Before the company bags an elephant, however, it will have to avoid blowing off its own foot.Yahoo's $350 million deal to acquire Zimbra, announced in September, 2007, looked like a sound investment from the start. Today, Yahoo leads the Web-based email market with a base of around 250 million users -- a valuable asset, and certainly one that it cannot afford to lose. Zimbra will, at the very least, give Yahoo the technology it needs to ward off poachers -- including Google, whose own Web-based email "beta release" now looks strangely old-fashioned.

But Zimbra isn't simply about protecting Yahoo's share of the current Web-based email market. The company clearly sees Zimbra as its ticket to the groupware big leagues, competing in a billion-dollar business software market against the likes of Microsoft, IBM, and Novell.

Zimbra won't be the first product to declare war on conventional groupware. More than a decade ago, Netscape charged down the same road; over the years, various other upstarts followed suit. Invariably, it was a one-way trip.

Zimbra's Collaboration Suite -- available in either hosted or client-server form, including an open-source edition -- will almost certainly fare better than any of these ill-fated wannabes. For one thing, Zimbra is built upon technology that can do what the others could not: blur, finally and decisively, the lines separating Web versus desktop and online versus offline applications. For another, Yahoo is both able and willing (at least under its current management) to provide the kind of support Zimbra will require to establish itself as a legitimate groupware product.

At the very least, Zimbra could make enterprise-class groupware accessible (and affordable) to thousands of smaller companies. But first, Yahoo must protect Zimbra from a threat that can derail even the most promising new technology: unrealistic expectations.

Yahoo's first Zimbra beta release appeared just this week. Scores of news outlets covered the release, ranging from the usual IT suspects to mainstream titles like the Washington Post. The media attention would have been unusual for any software beta release, but it was especially noteworthy for a product like Zimbra: software still defined more by its promise than by its accomplishments.

This coverage featured a number of reviews, most of which seemed fair and thoughtful, even when they focused more on the Zimbra beta's weaknesses than its strengths. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of this coverage, in my opinion, is the tendency to describe Zimbra with phrases like ""Outlook killer" or "Exchange killer". On an individual basis, none of these references are very significant. Collectively, however, they suggest how easily great expectations can turn into unrealistic demands.

This is a tough game for any company to play; no amount of money can buy the sort of publicity that Zimbra is generating right now, and Yahoo would be foolish to eschew it. Yahoo would be just as foolish, however, to view the current level of hype surrounding Zimbra as anything less than a threat to its true potential.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing