Blogger: Bill Pray
Google announced Google Apps Sync for Outlook recently, which as Guy points out in his blog, allows enterprises to keep the Outlook client on the front end while replacing Microsoft Exchange on the backend. However, having been part of a team that built a connector for Outlook, it is not as simple as it sounds. Google’s approach may doom the effort.
Connectors to the Outlook are not new. For example, IBM and Novell have developed and supported an Outlook connector for years for their e-mail solutions. However, both of these vendors have dropped development of their connectors within the last year. Neither vendor has had wild success with their connectors and, I suspect, both found the engineering effort to be costly. I think a reason why is that these vendors were approaching it as an effort to make their product, each with more than a decade development, work like their product (not Exchange) in Outlook. This is a difficult task and one that requires constant vigilance to insure the connector keeps working as intended with each new patch, service pack, and release of Outlook .
Other vendors have used a different approach with their connectors. For example, Zimbra, PostPath, and Scalix entered the game with the deliberate strategy that they would emulate or work like Exchange – i.e. be an Exchange replacement. Their products were built from the start with the idea that Outlook could be the primary client. This approach seems to have been somewhat more successful, but even these vendors would like to see customers embrace their web clients over Outlook for a better experience.
As Microsoft alters Outlook in releases, service packs, and patches, it becomes very difficult to maintain this kind of integration. A lot of the heavy lifting happens client side in Outlook, so even small tweaks can create engineering nightmares for an integration. Microsoft definitely isn’t incented to be helpful to these kinds of integrations like they are with partner application integrations to Outlook. The result is that customers trying to use the connectors become frustrated with frequent “breaks” and loss of functionality as their vendor tries to catch up to the latest changes in the Outlook client.
Google seems to be approaching it like IBM and Novell have… building a connector to make Gmail work in Outlook. It will be interesting to see if they can really make it successful. As Guy pointed out, the initial release will be missing features – such as task management, rules, and delegation. This makes it questionable as to whether or not the connector can really permit enterprises to replace their Exchange servers on the backend. Having experienced it first hand, I believe users will be frustrated by the missing functionality. I expect the success of the connector for Google will be as limited as it has been for IBM and Novell. I agree with Larry that more competition would be healthy for this market, but I believe Google’s Outlook connector may struggle.