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Zimbra wants to out-Outlook Outlook

 You have to hand it to Zimbra.The company, now part of Yahoo and seemingly unfazed by all that entails, is nothing if not aggressive. With Zimbra Desktopit’s now taking on the grand poobah of e-mail clients.

Yes, Zimbra is trying to out-Outlook Microsoft Outlook. The nerve!


Given the long-running corporate email wars — Microsoft claims to have unseated 4.7 million IBM/Lotus seats last year and wants convert another 5 million in 2008, Zimbra is a long shot. In enterprises e-mail remains a two horse race and Zimbra ain’t one of the horses.

Still, some say it’s webbyness and newness is a big plus compared to the lets-face-it old and boring Exchange, Notes and GroupWise dinosaurs.

Zimbra’s strategy, ripped from the Microsoft playbook, is to attack from the PC and get to the servers later.

Zimbra Desktop will let users tap into their various Gmail, Yahoo Mail, even Exchange and Notes back ends with one good-looking client. If you consider how many people — raise your hand — have more than one email account, this can be attractive.

The now-available beta of Zimbra Desktop “brings all the Zimbra goodness, the search, the conversations, and tags to non-Zimbra back ends,” says Satish Dharmaraj, co-founder and former CEO of Zimbra and now vice president of Yahoo’s Zimbra Business.

Many users have long used Outlook as their email’s face regardless of the backend server. Zimbra hopes they’re ready to move on.

With the free Zimbra Desktop “we can consolidate your different mail and make it available offline and online across accounts,” he said. It should be easy for people –including VARs to “insert” Zimbra into those accounts, he said.

Then, as those users start to require shared documents and calendars, VARs can upsell Zimbra Collaboration Suite. His contention is that many businesses with IMAP mail servers still don’t have real collaboration deployed and that is an opportunity for partners and Zimbra.

Zimbra’s sweet spot now is the higher ed market where it claims 1.4 million users in 300 universities including Stanford, Georgia Tech, Penn, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, NYU’s Stern Business School and others.

Dharmaraj acknowledges that the “whither Yahoo” question comes up a lot.

“The things we do say to partners and customers is ‘Hey we, more than any other collaboration suite out there, are based on open standards and open source and you have so much more control over Zimbra and its code base. with our 250 partners in the ecosystem. You have far more control with us than you would with Notes, GroupWise or Exchange.”

And, as more companies see other applications “disrupted” by the software as a service (SaaS) boom — with CRM moving to or ERP to NetSuite or hosted Oracle or SAP, the idea of moving to a webbified and hosted mail system gets a lot more credible.

“You see all over how traditional, old enterprise apps are being replaced with open standards-based and web-protocol based Web applications,” he said. It saves the enterprise money and gives it the freedom to migrate as needed, he said.

“The reason our sweet spot is universities is they’re all enterprises, but they’re forward thinking enterprises.”

Zimbra partners include Perceiva and Scalar and hosting partner on enterprise deals. And in higher education, it works with Enable Consulting, Unicon, along with vendor partners Red Hat and Apple.

Zimbra’s issue may not be so much with Exchange or Notes or GroupWise. In its key market it faces up squarely against the Google Gmail and Google Apps lineup. So where this might have looked like a battle between old mail and new mail, it may shake out to be a battle of Web 2.0 titans. And with Google’s heft, it’s clear which has the size advantage.

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