I sometimes wonder about the sanity of Gartner analysts. That thought wandered into my mind this morning when I read the headline in the U.K. Daily Telegraph newspaper proclaiming “Gmail ready to tackle Microsoft Outlook”. Apparently some of the leading analysts in Gartner have concluded that five years after its introduction, Gmail is finally ready to worry Microsoft. The report went on to say:
"The road to its enterprise enlightenment has been long and bumpy, but Gmail should now be considered a mainstream cloud email supplier," said Matthew Cain, research vice president at Gartner. "While Gmail's enterprise email market share currently hovers around one per cent, it has close to half of the market for enterprise cloud email.”
In reality, the report is about the competition between Gmail and Exchange Online. In the larger scheme of things, it’s probably more firmly based on the competition between Google Apps and Office 365 because most large enterprises will make their buying decision on the basis of the capabilities of an application suite rather than a single application, even one that this so pervasive as email.
Even if we boiled down the debate to consider the relative merits of the Gmail server and its web client versus Exchange Online and Outlook Web App (OWA), I still don’t think that Gartner is right. The user interface presented in Gmail is still not as polished as that offered by OWA and anyway, most large enterprises will select Outlook 2007 or Outlook 2010 to connect to Exchange (Outlook 2003 is not supported by Office 365). And comparing the charming bluntness of Gmail's user interface to Outlook is not a fair contest. Of course, Outlook, like the rest of the Microsoft Office applications, can be criticized because it is too feature-rich (a fat client above all). It’s also true that the tweaks given to Outlook's user interface by Microsoft are often unwelcomed by users: the introduction of the ribbon interface comes to mind here – something that makes total sense to many technologists but can represent a stumbling block to people who don’t quite “get it”.
And if we make the comparison on the basis of the email server, I don’t see how Gartner is right either. Gmail doesn’t offer compliance features such as archive mailboxes, litigation hold, retention hold, or discovery searches.These are only some of the features introduced in Exchange 2010 that are also available to Exchange Online. It would be nice if email servers didn't have to include compliance features but that's not really possible in today's litigation-loving world of business.
Other infrastructure components behind the scenes such as the Mailbox Replication Service (MRS), which takes care of moving mailboxes between on-premises servers and cloud servers, demonstrate the maturity of Exchange. Indeed, the sheer fact that Microsoft supports on-premises, cloud, and hybrid deployments from the same code base is a trick that Google can’t deliver.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that Google has had considerable success in the cloud market and that Gmail is the major competitor to Exchange Online, or more correctly, that Google Apps is the major competitor to Office 365. I also continue to use Gmail on a daily basis. Even though it's possible, I resist the temptation to connect Gmail to Outlook via IMAP because the two don't seem to work together well. Performance is much snappier through the native Gmail interface.
But I have a nagging suspicion that Gartner’s view of the market is influenced by the success that Google has had in some specific areas (for example, selling to education establishments) and the relatively open playing field that Google enjoyed before Office 365 arrived. I think Office 365, even handicapped by the confusing set of pricing plans that can only be loved by its creators, is a much fiercer opponent than BPOS ever was and if anything, I think that the newspaper might have been more correct if they gone with the headline:”Gmail under pressure from Exchange Online” instead of sipping gently from the Kool-Aid offered by Gartner.