Browsing my Exchange 2000 book recently (don't ask why I should be doing such a thing!), I found a quote by Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems. The quote is from an article in the Wall Street Journal (September 2, 1999):
"Our customers don't care who cooks the food in our cafeteria, cleans our building, or waters the shrubs. Nor will they care who runs our e-mail systems."
At the time, McNealy was talking about traditional outsourcing of email. Sun competed with Microsoft on many fronts as the UNIX versus Windows war was in full swing. Email was a major area of competition, with Sun offering the iPlanet Messaging Server (based on the SMTP/IMAP/POP protocols).
Pricing was Sun’s big weapon as iPlanet invariably cost a lot less than Exchange, largely because many more users were supported on large Solaris servers than could be by an equivalent Windows server of the time. This allowed Sun to promise customers that they could provide email for a few dollars per mailbox per month.
Functionality was the Achilles Heel for Sun. Today the Exchange/Outlook combination is acknowledged to be so much more feature-rich than can be delivered by an IMAP server and client and companies might conclude that moving from Outlook (in particular) would cause so much disruption internally that any potential saving in hardware and software would be quickly absorbed by lost productivity.
A different horizon existed in late 1999. Exchange 2000 was new. It was the first of a new generation of Exchange and the migration from Exchange 5.5 was painful. Outlook 98 was the client with Outlook 2000 just coming. Neither had seized the loyalty that Outlook now attracts from so many people. As companies looked at the cost of migration, including the need to deploy Active Directory for the first time, they considered alternatives to Exchange 2000. Telling CIOs that Sun could deliver email at a radically lower price point became a huge threat to Microsoft and many battles were fought by Microsoft as Sun brought their message of a mailbox for a few dollars per month to the market. I participated in quite a few sales campaigns at the time and recall that the combination of Exchange, Compaq hardware, and great services was often sufficient to keep the Sun wolf from the door.
Moving forward to today, years the biggest differences are the sheer volume of email that we handle and the number and variety of mobile devices that connect to our servers. However, many factors persist. Migrations are still costly, as anyone who is considering moving from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010 or 2013 can testify. Even though Exchange now supports all the major Internet email protocols, debate still rages around the merits of proprietary email systems versus those based on Internet protocols. And a low monthly cost per mailbox is often used to justify the move from on-premises email systems to hosted platforms.
What has changed dramatically in the last two years is the general acceptance that cloud-based platforms can deliver email services at the right level of security, functionality, and availability to meet the needs of large corporations. Indeed, it is remarkable just how successful Office 365 has become in such a short period. I thought the move to embrace the cloud would be slower but a combination of reliability, pricing, and the way that Microsoft has methodically achieved quality and audit accreditations has helped prove Office 365 in the eyes of doubters.
Of course, there have been blips along the way, including some problems in migrating tenants to the latest software platform, but nothing is ever going to be perfect and the sheer size of the environment means that small issues are magnified. Office 365 and Google Apps have proven McNealy’s assessment that no one cares who runs our email systems. It just happened later than he predicted.
In an April 23 article by Mary Jo Foley, Jeff Teper, Microsoft Corporate VP for Office Servers and Services, is quoted as saying “The idea is that the cloud is where you get the best experience”. We might not care about who runs our email systems, but at least now they want us to get the best experience. Isn’t that thoughtful?
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