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E-mail expert: On dumping Outlook, Exchange & IE

Yes, there are good reasons to move from Microsoft Exchange, Outlook and Internet Explorer to Linux-based and open source alternatives. But there are bad ways to go about it, expert Julie Hanna Farris says in this interview. She also discusses the Firefox phenomenon and the growing use of Webmail.

Alternative messaging evangelist and visionary Julie Hanna Farris is gung-ho about messaging on Linux and about Mozilla's Firefox browser. That doesn't mean that the Scalix founder is telling every company to dump Microsoft's messaging systems and browsers right away, but she thinks that moving in that direction is often a good idea. As she says in this interview, about 50% of Scalix's customers are dumping Exchange for Linux-based e-mail servers.

In previous interviews, we've talked about companies that have moved off of Exchange on the server but keep Outlook on the client. We had quite a bit of feedback saying that companies that keep Outlook are misguided. Do you agree?

Julie Hanna Farris: Changing both the desktop and server at the same time is a complex undertaking that not all customers will want to embark on. Changing a desktop platform or an e-mail client has major implications from a technology and training standpoint. Organizations have learned that they have to be thoughtful about any change that they make to the desktop, even software upgrades. For example, customers going from Outlook 2000 to Outlook 2003 face a significant user interface change and have really had to think through how they pace the upgrade, the retraining issues and the cost of that retraining. When you change the user interface for the user on the mail client you have to do that with a lot of thought and care.

As a result, most customers say they want to migrate the e-mail server to Linux first. This reduces the number of independently moving parts. Scalix lets customers migrate their e-mail server to Linux, with the flexibility to migrate the client separately, if they choose. It's all about choice.

For customers that want to make a wholesale move to Linux on the server and desktop, we say, 'Great!' They can do that with Novell Evolution, Mozilla Thunderbird or the POP/IMAP client of their choice.

The thing that gets overlooked when people say that [dumping Exchange and keeping Outlook] is misguided, is that almost 75% of the corporate market today runs Outlook on the desktop. It's important that this doesn't become a religious debate or that adopting Linux becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. The practical reality is that most organizations will have a combination of open and closed source software, Linux, Windows and Unix, making co-existence and interoperability between these worlds critical.

Speaking of choice, Scalix chose to add support of Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox to the Scalix messaging line. Why?

Farris: We've continued to execute on what we call Scalix Clients of Choice, the goal of which is to offer maximum choice and flexibility; that includes choice of browser and desktop platform. As we have seen increasing customer demand for Mozilla and Firefox over the past year, we made this a focus. Interest in Mozilla and Firefox has been driven by security concerns in IE [Microsoft Internet Explorer]. Firefox is also considered to be a more user-centric in its design, with features like pop-up blocking contributing to its popularity.

One of the challenges or issues you have today with a Mozilla port is that you get a degradation in functionality, in comparison with Internet Explorer, which has relegated it to 'second class citizen' status. Ensuring that Mozilla had equal footing with IE was a key design goal for Scalix. This meant delivering the same desktop-grade functionality we now provide with IE. As a result, we believe we have the most robust and richly featured Web client application running on Mozilla and Firefox today.

Could you say more about that increased functionality in terms of the features that you are adding?

Farris: We characterize it as desktop-grade functionality, which refers to capabilities typically limited to desktop applications and not available through Web browsers. Things like drop-down menus, keyboard shortcuts, automatic address completion, resizable windows and drag-and-drop are pervasive throughout Scalix Web Access. These kinds of features are popular because they can have a significant impact on increasing productivity, especially in an application like e-mail, which most of us spend six-plus hours using each day. The underlying technology that enables all of this is DHTML, Javascript, XML and SOAP. That means no browser plug-ins, Java or ActiveX Controls that require download and configuration.

What have you seen happening lately in terms of businesses adopting alternative messaging systems?

Farris: I can speak of our experience at Scalix. Roughly 50% of our customers are migrating from Exchange. The other 50% are migrating from a variety of other systems. Many are looking to enhance basic POP/IMAP e-mail with advanced messaging, and calendaring functionality.

On the client side, we are seeing a growing trend, with the majority of our customers expressing interest in deploying our Webmail client as the only client deployed for certain employees. We have been somewhat surprised by this because Webmail is typically considered a secondary, not primary, means of access.

Customers are increasingly saying, 'Scalix Web Access has enough functionality that I can use it instead of my desktop mail client.' This is a growing trend because customers see Web client access as less complex and costly than maintaining desktop applications. This trend is also a testament to the desktop-grade capabilities we've developed in our Web client. All that said, it's important to keep in mind that this holds true for a segment of the user population. There are many power users that require desktop mail clients and we expect this to be the case for the foreseeable future.

What are the challenges facing people who are dropping a desktop mail client?

Farris: For a company considering doing that, it is important to understand the usability requirements of the employees that they are looking to move to a Web client. While the functionality in Webmail continues to increase, desktop e-mail clients still provide more features.

The most significant missing functionality in Web clients today is the ability to use them in an offline mode. That's an issue for the road warrior or anyone who wants to be able to use e-mail when they're not on the network. This gap is continuing to close, however. For example, we have plans to provide offline capabilities for Scalix Web Access and expect that other e-mail vendors will be looking to do the same.

In working with customers, we work hard to ensure that they are very clear about their requirements and that a Web client-only approach will meet their needs. The benefits they gain are simplification, reduced costs and greater security.

For more information:

Fear keeps IT chained to Exchange

New open source e-mail client coming, but Outlook looks strong

Dig Deeper on Linux servers

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