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Zimbra stalks Microsoft Office with open source, Web services

Zimbra CEO Satish Dhamaraj sees cracks in the Microsoft Office armor that his Ajax-based collaboration suite can exploit.

Satish Dhamaraj, CEO of open source collaboration startup Zimbra, wants to take out Microsoft Office and Exchange.

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It's a lofty goal, but Dhamaraj is confident it's possible using Ajax-based Web services wrapped in a mash-up, community-driven API model.

These days, simply building an open source email client isn't enough, and Zimbra is taking its cues from the API "mash-up" model spawned by Google Maps, which has allowed users to create everything from travel planning applications to store locators that list how many video game consoles the local Target has in stock. Similarly, Zimbra's own Zimlet API architecture allows users to embed Web services into their everyday email conversations. It's this capability that Dhamaraj hopes will allow his open source collaboration firm, now with a growing army of 4 million paid email boxes, to take out the entrenched giant in Redmond.

If some of the features being built into Office these days are any indication, Microsoft is worried, Dhamaraj thinks. But is he right? caught up with the chief executive to find out. So you're taking on Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. How do you do it?

Satish Dhamaraj: The first thing to mention is that we believe in open standards and flexibility. The entire notion of Zimlets is that features like calendar are not islands of applications, but instead are interconnected with all applications like CRM, ERP and even Internet applications such as travel and airplane flight information. Your typical email contains information about a lot of different things of which some are interrelated to travel and weather. We want to connect them all together using a flexible API.

[Editor's Note: Zimlets are a mechanism for integrating the Zimbra Collaboration Suite with third-party information systems, like Wikipedia, and content as well as creating "mash-up" user interfaces within the Zimbra suite itself.]

The other big thing we have that most competitors today do not have is the ability to index the headers, bodies and attachments of all emails coming into a user's mailbox. Using this information, we provide what is called a structured search. So, for litigation discovery, we can allow a company to archive [email], and an administrator can do a structured search against that information.

Zimbra also allows administrators and users to convert email to HTML, including attachments of types like PDF, PowerPoint or even a .zip file. All of these can be viewed using HTML.

How are you teaching customers to use the Web 2.0, Web services and Ajax additions to their email client?

Dhamaraj: The way we make customers learn these features is [through our] training seminars, as well as a Webinar that we created as a Flash-based tutorial. It's a three-minute talk that describes all features, starting off with the search function. We also support the Google query language, which people are already used to. But we also felt we had to have a visual impact, so we built an advanced search UI on top of that. That all said, it still takes a while for end users to get used to all these fancy features we have.

Zimbra's already succeeded in generating 4 million paid email boxes. How do you expand?

Dhamaraj: With Zimlets, we allow people to write out APIs in open source, and with that ability, people have begun to write their own for internal corporate use. Up to 70% of our customers are writing these internal Zimlets for things like travel and then are tying them to their internal email. Then there are others still who are writing Zimlets to the open source community gallery that is hosted on the Zimbra site. This repository is grouped by category, like CRM, telecom.

Could you name the top few community-driven efforts?

Dhamaraj: The most concentrated efforts are around Spam and virus protection, but there is also a pretty good white list/black list Zimlet as well as a video Zimlet to allow viewers to view video email.

Are there other competitors besides Microsoft in this space?

Dhamaraj: There is Novell GroupWise, Oracle Collaboration Suite, and Lotus Notes. Scalix is basically HP Open Mail from 10 years ago. They are basically an integration house that has taken Open Mail and developed it on Linux. Problem there is they don't have differentiation from what's out there, and they've been here for four years without much traction. We really don't see much competition from them.

What's an ideal customer for open source Web services-enabled collaboration today. Is it the SMB or the enterprise?

Dhamaraj: We are in two markets. There are hosted service providers for the people who want hosted email for SMBs. And then there's what we started last week with our VMware virtual appliance play. In the enterprise, it's been mostly customers like H&R Block, which basically has a deskless worker strategy. Education is probably the largest market for us today.

Talk more about the recent virtualization offering.

Dhamaraj: We basically ported Zimbra onto rPath. It's an ISO image that boots with Zimbra and does auto updates from the Internet, as well as kernel patches. Using this model, we can create virtual appliances and bring a Zimbra appliance on any hardware and load balance it, and make it highly available.

Your pitch is that customers should strip out Microsoft and replace it with Zimbra, but the reality today is all about mixed environments. What's your end game with customers?

Dhamaraj: We fully support mixed environments. We work with Microsoft Active Directory and cached mode Outlook. We do full-on delegation support from Outlook, and we support two-gigabyte mailboxes from Outlook. These are all things Exchange only recently started doing.

We work natively with Word and Office attachments, so you don't have to view them as HTML if you don't want to. We work alongside Exchange, so you can deploy something alongside Exchange to pass back and forth if you'd like. We support all of these things, but we also support mixed-mode Apple and Linux and Windows, which many customers have already. For us, being client-agnostic was a big goal.

How will you ensure interoperability will continue to work in the future?

Dhamaraj: Being open source and having everything in open standards means that anything we do will always be backwards compatible and open standards compliant. Companies like Mozilla use our server, as well as and MySQL, so we're well established in the open source software space.

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