Bill Gates may have undergone a Damascene conversion in his attitude to the internet. But when his email system recently delivered in the region of 3,000 messages an hour it must have been too much. This particular manifestation of the internet?s awesome power, and almost divine-like omnipotence, was thanks to a cyber prankster who illicitly signed up the Microsoft boss to every usernet news group.
The result? Sheer mayhem as unsolicited messages cascaded into the computers at Microsoft?s Redmond headquarters, causing them to crash. Undaunted, Gates and the boys from Seattle have unleashed Office 97 on the world, an all-singing suite that plugs everything from Powerpoint and Word through to Access and Excel into the Net, paving the way for a new era of media-rich messaging that is light years removed from the old shared-file proprietary mailing systems of only a decade or so ago.
Around the world it?s estimated there are already some 55 million users of Microsoft applications. But Office 97 ? so it is claimed ? is likely to represent the biggest percentage upgrade yet, with three million advance copies already sold through corporate licensing agreements and an initial demand for a further 10,000 copies from retail outlets. Seasoned Microsoft watchers are used to the Seattle hype machine, but even independent analysts like IDC acknowledge that Microsoft now has a massively dominant 90 per cent share of the office suite market. But what has all this got to do with core messaging?
Well, for a start, one new component of Office 97 is called Microsoft Outlook, a desktop information manager that helps users track documents, manage information and communicate with others. By integrating email, scheduling, contact and task management, Outlook acts as a central clearing house for Office 97. More importantly, when it comes to the internet, Office 97 allows users to create hyperlinks, linking Word documents to a Web site, or publishing content on the Web in HTML or other Office formats.
But the sheer ability to mix and match hardware platforms scattered around the globe, and then exchange everything from advertising graphics to voice messages via the Net, has opened up a whole new can of worms. For one thing, the very definition of a messaging or mailing system is now blurred to the point of redundancy.
The newest phrase, which just about conjures up the industry?s latest hive of activity, is group web. Another phrase doing the rounds is webware. In essence, both stitch together the concept of groupware ? itself always a little confusing, but roughly defining any system that allows groups of workers to exchange messages and documents via networks ? with the new order of the Web.
As such it has thrown a spanner in the works of old groupware leaders like Lotus and Novell, not to mention Microsoft, which was also slowly heading down this path, albeit via a less overt, desktop PC route. Now, suddenly, their products are having to embrace the new paradigm of the internet and the Web and HTML-style methods of document transfer. But while Microsoft, Lotus (aka IBM) and Novell are slugging it out at the top in this new Web messaging-cum-group- file-sharing revolution, where does that leave the reseller community which is hoping equally to carve a crust out of this latest evolution?
The answer, of course, rests with what the customers want. And until it becomes clear how the battle between Microsoft, IBM and Novell shapes up ? not to mention how the likes of Sun, HP and Oracle will also fit into the bigger picture ? it is difficult for either customer or Var to shape a lasting strategy.
One man with an aerial view is Clive Longbottom, European programme director with the Meta Group, which provides advice to the world?s top 2,000 companies on IT procurement. He recalls: ?When the first Lan-based mailing systems came out about eight years ago with products like cc:Mail and MS Mail, the likes of IBM, Dec and Data General were not only highly sceptical, but they sat back and laughed.
?That was because their first generation, proprietary systems all had massive scalability and they couldn?t see beyond that. With their mainframe or mini computer-type systems, you could have 1,000 people on a box and just one person administering it. The idea was that you didn?t move messages around ? instead you had a central, shared file arrangement with permission for authorised parties to view the messages.
?By contrast, the new Lan systems might have accommodated only 100 on a box and needed three staff to administer them.
?But the likes of IBM and Dec found they were hammered. Not only did the new messaging systems look good, not only were they safe, but because copies of messages went to everyone ? as opposed to one message accessed by different people -? if the system ever crashed, information on how emails had been previously distributed wasn?t lost completely. And with everyone receiving copies of, say, a particular message, there was less likelihood of the original text being lost if the worst happened.?
It was out of such turmoil that products like Microsoft?s Exchange server, Lotus Notes and Novell?s Groupwise office system were born. But about 18 months ago along came the concept of intranets with cheap and cheerful email hanging off of SMTP (simple mail transport protocol), followed by the concept of the Web and HTML, ushering in a whole new world of messaging in which text could be accompanied by graphics, equally irrespective of hardware.
The problem with SMTP as a standard is that it is still in the early stages. While it might be fine for shunting text around the internet, try anything more complicated ? even using Mime attachments (multiparty internet messaging extensions) and there is a risk of the document breaking up.
Meanwhile, companies are starting to enjoy conversing across the internet. They can still use SMTP for simple text exchanges around sites, perhaps even keep the network internal in the fashion of intranets. But if they want their messaging or document systems to be a bit more clever, then the semi-proprietary route ? using products such as Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes ? is probably inevitable.
HTML, at the heart of internet document browsing, might be OK for just that ? browsing ? but if you want the whole network circus of corporate documents that can be viewed, amended, and generally put through an interactive hoop, then the choice at the moment is either Notes or Exchange, with Novell?s Groupwise solution trailing a poor third.
What this all boils down to is a maelstrom of standards in which the devil takes the hindmost. But while Microsoft was busy waxing lyrical about the internet capabilities of Office 97, IBM ? through the auspices of its Lotus division ? was doing much the same, espousing the virtues of Domino, its Lotus Notes-based internet application server which was paraded at Lotusphere 97 at Disney-World in Florida.
With the advent of Domino, both Lotus Notes and Exchange can deliver much the same high message and document handling functionality through their semi-proprietorial internal standards.
Moreover, both talk Mapi (Microsoft?s messaging application program interface), Bill Gates having won that particular standards war. So how do Microsoft and Lotus ? excluding Novell for the moment from this equation ? differ in their approaches?
Hugh Smith, chairman of Nottingham-based Nexor Systems, which builds message switches for the likes of government, military institutions and large corporates, believes that both protagonists are marching down the same street, but from different directions. Like rival marching bands in Belfast, a clash is inevitable. ?Microsoft?s view of the world is ?we?ll gain control of the desktop and then the server?,? he says.
With Domino, by contrast, Lotus is pitching for the server market in the hope that full desktop integration will be a foregone conclusion. Smith?s view is that in the long term, Gates might win the battle for dominance. For a start, an Exchange client is given away with every Windows or NT system sold. And, with the launch of Office 97, he thinks it unlikely that most corporate users won?t use this as the front end in time.
So how can Vars make money out of this new market? Smith?s own belief is that if you can?t compete with the likes of Microsoft on the desktop, the only viable route left is to look at the underlying architecture and ascertain if there is a way of adding value to it ? a tactic which hopefully allows you to retain some independence.
In Nexor?s case, the company?s messaging switches and directory systems ? made for primarily Unix and NT platforms ? accommodate a variety of protocols, from trusty old networking steeds like X400 through to SMTP. ?Our approach is to say to customers, whatever hardware you have at the moment, you don?t need to change it. You can put our message switch on whatever platform you like and then use, say, the Microsoft Exchange client. ?We also have a number of tools that add to the Mapi in the Microsoft client which means they get functionality above and beyond what is in the exchange server.?
Unsurprisingly, Smith?s advice to customers who want to improve their message networks but who are equally baffled about whether to go down the Microsoft, Lotus or even Novell route (he recommends the latter if they have an existing Novell infrastructure) is to stick to international messaging protocols such as X400 and SMTP if they want to preserve the integrity of the server.
?When you get into conference systems like Notes and Exchange, with shared mailboxes, you?re entering the world of proprietary standards and you need to weigh up your decisions extremely carefully,? he warns.
Paul O?Reilly, another specialist in the messaging sphere with his own value-added consultancy Invaco, is a former internet project manager for Hewlett Packard. He echoes the view that messaging is now a fraught area for both reseller and customer. But he adds, ?You don?t buy something like Lotus Notes purely for messaging. In fact I don?t think anyone would buy cc:Mail if it didn?t come bundled with Notes. In fact there are very few standalone email systems.?
O?Reilly ? despite the threat posed by Exchange ? still believes Notes ?to be the most complete piece of groupware on the market?, irrespective of its mere message handling capabilities. More generally however, he contends that as the definition of messaging itself becomes blurred, and users ? as with Bill Gates and his impromptu Usernet membership ? are cascaded with unwanted correspondence, the industry will focus its activities on software that can prioritise incoming mail.
?These days messaging is far more than just email, it?s the dissemination of all kinds of information,? says O?Reilly. Even Novell may still stand a chance in this respect, he thinks, with its latest product able to integrate with an office?s switchboard so that text-based email messages can be voice synthesised and then phoned to a worker at home.
But, he says: ?Resellers must be completely baffled by all these changes. In the long term, though, I don?t think it matters too much which product line they support. The open messaging standards that we already have are far too important to be lost. All Vars have got to do is hang on in.?
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