Without Groupware, Apple Loses Credibility

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In my 'real' job as a sysadmin, one of the most critical tools I have is groupware, i.e. email, contacts, calendaring, tasks -- and the ability to have all of them relate to each other.

I use, on a fairly regular basis, Microsoft's Entourage and Outlook, Evolution, Outlook Web Access, and Goodlink on my Sprint PPC-6600 Pocket PC phone. Obviously, multiple groupware clients on multiple platforms are not a problem. I find they all work really well with our server of choice: Microsoft Exchange.

Now, as a Mac writer, it probably borders on heresy for me to be using Exchange, or to be as happy with it as I generally am. ''John, why aren't you using something that runs on Mac OS X? Well, I'd like to, but at the moment, there aren't any mature groupware servers that run on Mac OS X that support enterprise groupware's range of needs. Note... I said mature.

There are some products that come close for a subset of those features. Kerio Mail Server has both Outlook and Entourage support, and I'd hazard you could get Evolution to work with it. It has an excellent Web interface, and even a Web interface designed for handhelds. But, the current version has some issues integrating with Open Directory and it can't push mail and other info onto handhelds. Web interfaces, even tuned, minimalist ones, are not the kind of thing you want to use on a handheld.

Open-Xchange has a great deal of potential, but it's not something I could develop into an SMB with a couple hundred clients without spending a lot of time on the installation and configuration -- far beyond what I'd need with Exchange. Most of the rest are either still too finished to really be useful, or Web-only.

Communigate Pro only supports Windows groupware clients. Now Up-To-Date and Contact require their own clients, don't support a wide range of handhelds, have no email options, and cannot integrate with either Active Directory or Open Directory. Meeting Maker has good support for handhelds and Outlook, but if you aren't on Windows, you have to use their client and you still need a separate product for email support.

If you need the kind of groupware functionality you get from the Exchange ecosystem, there's really nothing for you on Mac OS X, and that's a real problem for Apple which is trying to gain traction in the Enterprise.

Groupware is a mission-critical need in corporate America. The ability to have your email, contacts, events, scheduling and tasks all working together is no longer a luxury of the Fortune 500. While things like iCal, and Web client-only systems may work for a select few, in a modern enterprise it's not going to play. Things like delegation, public folders, real handheld support, instant messaging integration and the rest are not 'highfalutin' options anymore. They're basic functions that an enterprise needs to coordinate the functions of its people.

And every time Apple has to throw up its hands when asked about groupware and admit that its only calendaring solution is .Mac, they lose a lot of credibility outside of the server room.

Web-only clients aren't going to cut it, either. Yes, yes, AJAX is a wonderful thing, but when I'm not on my network, I can't use it. When I don't have a connection available, VPNs are useless. The truth is, while Web clients have improved by leaps and bounds, there are times that you still need to be able to work in a disconnected state, and for that you need a fat client.

Groupware is one of the biggest holes in Apple's Enterprise offerings. There's nothing out there that runs on Mac OS X that you can use to replace Exchange, or Domino, or Groupwise. Apple offers a solid email solution, and a good directory service, but that's it. There's no calendaring, and if you aren't on Mac OS X 10.4 Server, good luck with using network address books. That's just not going to cut it.

Handheld integration in OS X still is stuck back in the manual sync era. While on Windows, thanks to companies like R.I.M, and products like GoodLink, you never have to connect your handheld to the network to integrate it with Exchange. (GoodLink's setup is one of the simplest and best I've ever seen... ''Did you get the GoodLink email? Do what it says.'' Ten to 20 minutes later, it's done, and if the handheld is lost, you can remotely remove all of GoodLink's data and info from it.)

I know that at my company, we literally could not function without the Exchange feature set. Ironically, one of the most hated tasks we have is dealing with Exchange CALs. They're a perpetual hand in our pocket, taking our money ad infinitum. But any time we've looked for an alternative, there's nothing close on OS X, and very little options even on Windows or Linux -- nothing good enough to warrant switching.

If Apple were to come up with a solid groupware solution with a rich feature set, and, instead of trying to dictate client, offered multiple connection points, (WeBDAV, Microsoft's HTTP-DAV, OWA, the upcoming Web Services connections that will be in the next major version of Exchange, etc.), and push client support for handhelds, that would be a serious product for them. If you could plug Outlook, Evolution, Entourage, Web clients, and smartphones into a groupware solution that ran on OS X, and get Exchange-level functionality from it, without the onerous overhead of CALs, but with support for various directory services via Open Directory, that would be something that would appeal to a lot of companies in the SMB market.

If Apple were to provide an easy-to-use management and administration interface, and no-brainer integration with Kerberos and SSL, then you have a solution that smaller businesses and even schools could use. Make sure it has an open, well-documented API, and you have a solution that can create its own ecosystem that can be customized. (The extensibility of Exchange and Outlook are a major reason for their success. Without it, companies like Goodlink would have a much harder time of it.)

By concentrating on creating a ''universal server'' that was robust, feature-rich, scaled well, had an open, documented API, had client neutral handheld support, and didn't charge you by the client, Apple would have a solution that would be a real competitor to Exchange. And that's something a lot of companies would love, especially when it comes time to get more Exchange CALs or upgrade existing CALs.

The truth is, the groupware market isn't saturated by any means. Exchange is the dominant player, but that's more because everyone else is too expensive, too hard to set up and manage, and has overly limited client support. It's also because they lack the feature set and extensibility that enterprise-ready groupware needs.

I know a lot of companies that regularly evaluate competitors to Exchange, but other than Domino, GroupWise or possibly Oracle Collaboration suite, there really aren't any. And on Mac OS X, there are none. The opportunity is there. It's rich, and it's waiting for someone to 'Think Different.

It's only a matter of time before someone does, and it would be silly if the first enterprise-ready groupware solution on Mac OS X didn't come from Apple.

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