Wrong question well asked

I’m going to put on my official PR hat for a few minutes here to talk about a story that got some attention last week. I need to be official because I probably wouldn’t have given this story much thought were it not for one of my clients – groupSPARK. What I’m going to say here isn’t a rehash or summary of bunch of meetings. It’s something that stuck me as I read the articles in question and that I think makes sense. The other thing I wondered was why no one else had the same reaction that I did.

Hat on.

Way back on March 23, Mary Jo Foley wrote about an upcoming Yankee Group report that said the real threat to Microsoft Exchange isn’t IBM but open source alternatives. What Yankee was saying isn’t that surprising – but does it really matter?

Here’s what she had to say:

Yankee will publish in April its “2007 Global Server Hardware and Server OS Survey.” The survey of nearly 1,000 IT managers and C-level executives includes some “ominous” news for Microsoft, according to a copy of the executive summary of the study that I had a chance to see this week.

“In an ominous portent for Microsoft, 23% of the survey respondents indicated they intend to migrate away from Exchange Server and switch to an alternative Linux or open source Email and messaging distribution platform over the next 12 to 18 months. The users attributed their decision to their belief that Linux Email and messaging packages are cheaper and easier to manage than Exchange,” according to study author and Yankee analyst Laura DiDio.

Certainly this may well be true on the cost aspect of the equation – especially for smaller businesses that have been priced out of Exchange all together. But why easier to manage? The fact is that you are still looking at having a server (or servers) that you need to deal with. The open source alternatives might be less expensive and different but does that make them necessarily the right choice?

As I mentioned, I probably wouldn’t have been thinking about this at all except that groupSPARK does Exchange hosting. Maybe I’ve been drinking the Kool-aid but why have an email server – either Exchange or open source – on site at all?

In cases like this, I try to think of analogous situations to see if I can find one that makes sense to me; and here’s what I came up with: How many businesses maintain their own physical delivery systems? Not many. People came to realize that it made more sense to outsource to the USPS, FedEx or UPS than to maintain the own fleets of trucks and teams of drivers.

Was the first step to buy more fuel efficient vehicles? To choose between gas and diesel? No, it was to look at removing the entire function from the equation and making it a service rather than an integral part of the business. Open source may provide a more economical truck, but that still doesn’t mean it make a whole lot of sense if you need a team of mechanics, garages to keep the trucks, insurance on them, etc.

Did this idea crop up in any of the other coverage/blogs/comments on this story? Not that I could find. Here are a couple of other examples of what was being said:

Outside of Yankee Group’s analysis, one thing is clear: open-source e-mail solutions comparable to Exchange exist and are becoming more prevalent. Scalix, for one, has a very nice webmail interface and administration console, plus it offers native MAPI support for Outlook. Zimbra is another viable open-source solution that touts voice-over-IP integration, synchronization with mobile devices, and compatibility with a mix of e-mail clients. Nonetheless, Exchange 2007 still offers a plethora of features and integration options that will certainly attract new customers. Still, when it comes to making business decisions cost is key, and open source has the “free market” cornered.

ars technica

Though cost and manageability are the perceived benefits of open source e-mail packages, they may be trade-offs for functionality. For example, the newly released Exchange 2007 includes support for integrated voice mail and e-mail in-boxes, access to e-mail over the phone with voice prompts, and extensive security and access controls.

InformationWeek

The fact that no one raised the question that I had – either in the stories or the comments – made me wonder about the echo/bandwagon phenomenon in social media. The most prevalent comments I saw were ones talking about the drawbacks or Exchange and the wonders of open source.

When I read stories like this it makes me think that sometimes technology can get in its own way. I love technology and use it all the time; but from time-to-time I find myself sitting there with some device or piece of software saying “screw it” and taking an old non-digital approach. There are accepted terms for the discussion and so that’s what’s discussed – whether it makes sense or not.

Hat off.

I should see if there’s a market for cargo vans.

[tags]Microsoft, Exchange, GroupSpark, Open Source, Zimbra, Scalix, Yankee Group, Mary Jo Foley, ZDNet, Informationweek, ars technica[/tags]

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