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The Benefit of Confusion

Gleaned from a Web search this morning:

“I have a data stream that will be sent as daily emails containing temperature and wind speed from a measurement site.  Our email system is Outlook…

“We are a GroupWise 6.5.5 shop. We have a new employee who will start work in 3 weeks whose current email system is Outlook.”

“We are using a Notes db to collect patient data which contains several forms.  But the db is in Notes R5 and the email system is Outlook.”

The email system is Outlook 2003, the workflow is based on SharePoint 2010 Approval workflow.”

“Top candidates will have a working knowledge and experience with Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and Excel. Outlook is our email system, so a working knowledge of that is helpful but not necessary.”

Microsoft introduced Outlook 97 in January 1997 and bundled it with Exchange Server 5.5, but had included versions of Outlook for MS-DOS, Windows 3.1x and the Mac with that version of Exchange Server. Since that time, Outlook has become the more or less de facto standard for email clients—our research shows that about 70% of corporate users employ Outlook or Outlook Web Access as their primary work-focused email system.

However, it is important to note that Outlook is an email client, not an email system. That seems obvious to just about anyone in IT, but to many business decision makers—many of whom are pushing to replace GroupWise or some other email system with Exchange—it’s not quite so obvious. Many of them view Outlook as their email system, not appreciating that Exchange is the actual email system that is managing and presenting their email experience. That’s a serious problem for non-Microsoft vendors who must overcome the misperception and that must educate decision makers—many of whom have already made up their mind about moving to Outlook—that email is about much more than just the personal email experience.

This confusion has definitely benefited Microsoft given the large number of organizations that have migrated competing email systems to Exchange over the years. I’ve wondered if this was a carefully planned decision by Microsoft back in the 1990s that has reaped huge rewards over the years, or if the company has simply benefited from an accidentally genius move that has convinced many decision makers that a user experience should be the driver for the email system decision. Either way, it has worked out quite well for Microsoft.

The implications of this are quite important, not only for Microsoft’s competitors, but also for decision makers that often are willing to spend millions of corporate dollars to migrate to Exchange, when what they’re really looking for is the Outlook experience.

I will be the first to admit that the Outlook experience is generally a good one, and that a decision to migrate to Exchange is not without merit. However, our cost modeling has demonstrated that several other email systems are significantly less expensive than Exchange, and not only when factoring in the cost of a migration: in many situations, these Exchange alternatives would be much less expensive even if they were being redeployed completely from scratch.

I have three recommendations for business decision makers that are intent on migrating to Outlook:

  1. Consider that Outlook is your email experience, but Exchange will be your email system. Talk to your IT administrators, consultants and other knowledgeable individuals inside and outside your company that can advise you on the merits of staying with your current email system vis-à-vis migrating to Exchange.
  2. Consider the complete cost of a migration—it may be more expensive than you think.
  3. Consider the long-term benefits of the migration. Will your users be sufficiently more productive with Outlook and Exchange than they would be if you stayed on whatever email system you’re using now? Will that increase in productivity offset the costs of switching email systems, including the disruption that comes from doing so?
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