Why is being 100% Outlook-compatible so revolutionary?

For non-experts, email usually is just about what they see and use, i.e. the email client, typically Outlook. In fact, Outlook is what allows users to access messages and calendars stored and managed on the Microsoft Exchange server. Basically, these two applications work together, one on the server side (Exchange) and the other on the desktop/client side (Outlook).

Outlook is the prevalent client for professional email. In 2018, 56% of businesses used the O365 suite which includes Outlook (source). Given this figure, you’d expect, or even take it for granted, that other email servers should be capable of interfacing with the email client most widespread in businesses, wouldn’t you?

Well no, it’s not that self-evident. As a matter of fact, this implies a true revolution.

Here’s why.

Microsoft’s lock-in strategy

A 1997 memo written for Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates by C++ General Manager Aaron Contorer perfectly summarises the Redmond firm’s technology lock-in strategy: “Customers constantly evaluate other desktop platforms, (but) it would be so much work to move over that they hope we just improve Windows rather than force them to move”.

This memo dates back twenty years, and one would think things have changed since…

Take, for instance, Active Directory’s dominance in directory services. The Active Directory-Microsoft Exchange couple has enabled Microsoft to dominate the infrastructure of almost every company on the planet thanks to a simple principle: if you wanted email, you needed Exchange, and Exchange needs Active Directory to work.

IT departments would just buy both without a second thought. This is how AD and Exchange became the infrastructure of choice in virtually all organisations. Microsoft’s strategy was simple: controlling the backend in order to control the frontend through its famous “embrace and extend” method. IT administrators didn’t have much of a choice:

  • Windows systems best connect with AD and Exchange
  • Macs and Linux devices cannot be managed by AD
  • Outlook for Mac offers a poorer user experience
  • There is no Outlook version for Linux

This strategy has been successful: Microsoft has essentially made its system so rigid that it makes sense for any organisation to use it from end to end (source). What’s on the frontend of email? Microsoft Outlook. Outlook is Exchange’s email client. And so, the circle is complete.

Breaking away from Microsoft – 1: what are the alternatives?

Microsoft’s products have been developed to work in a closed ecosystem. They all need each other and run in a never-ending virtuous circle. Virtuous as far as Microsoft is concerned, that is… On the customer side, however, that’s another story. It goes without saying that this creates a strong technological dependency. Replacing one of the links in the chain implies weakening the others because everything is designed to be interdependent and compatible with the “M” in GAFAM only. With O365 and by offering “pick-and-choose” subscriptions, Microsoft has locked in entire IT systems.

Yet there are alternatives. For client workstations for instance, there’s OpenOffice, which offers a complete suite of office IT tools, more or less equivalent to Microsoft’s. “More or less” is the crux of the matter. Take compatibility issues and formatting differences between Open Office Writer and Microsoft Word. Both are able to read and write using the other’s native language (.odt/.ods for Writer and .doc/.docx for Word), but their compatibility is far from perfect and unpredictable. This page outlines the Microsoft office features that may encounter conversion issues with Open Office (with varying results).

So, there are alternatives to Microsoft. You may force your users to give up on their MS Office habits to switch to an open alternative, but you will need to manage the transition very carefully: converting all documents, rewriting some, providing support to users, making sure that you will be able to continue working with others outside your company, etc.

Breaking away from Microsoft – 2: alienating some users

As a rule, moving to a new tool can put a strain on some users. It forces them to relearn procedures that used to be effortless and they may lose time hesitating over unfamiliar options. In addition to lowering productivity, this may be perceived as a slap in the face for people who suddenly become incompetent at doing something they used to excel at (Excel macros, for instance). 

As far as email is concerned, there are many alternative solutions. In theory, using Outlook with a server other than Exchange is possible. It can be used with any IMAP server… if you want to use email without collaborative features, you are willing to accept a poorer user experience and you’re not afraid of bugs!

Some IT solutions do try and remedy this by offering a connector which, in addition to email, enables the synchronisation of calendar, contacts and shared features. But this changes Outlook’s interfaces and introduces technical, functional, deployment and handling issues. For your users, it isn’t Outlook as they see it but a substandard version.

Just like with Calc and Excel or Writer and Word, it isn’t exactly the same. Email is such a critical tool for organisations and users have so deeply ingrained habits with it that moving from a typical Microsoft-based infrastructure to another solution is tricky.

CIOs would like to reduce ICT lock-in while reducing costs, but when it comes to it, the fear of upsetting users is what drives their choices.

Sound familiar? Users want Outlook. Outlook only works with Exchange. Exchange works with Active Directory. Microsoft locks users into a circle of dependency that strips them of all control.

Outlook without Exchange: the MAPI protocol

BlueMind’s approach to breaking free from Microsoft’s grip is user-based. Some users want Outlook, and that’s non-negotiable. This means Outlook as it is familiar to users, i.e. the way it works with Exchange, with no downgrading.

Outlook communicates with Exchange Server through a set of MAPI protocols – which are very different from standard protocols (POP, IMAP, which only handle email messages) – that synchronise all Outlook data (calendars, contacts, tasks and notes as well as free/busy information…). Substituting Exchange therefore requires the implementation of a MAPI stack on the server side to communicate with Outlook just like the Microsoft server does.

This is an issue many businesses have come up against. “It’s a huge technical challenge” explains Thomas Cataldo, BlueMind’s Technical Director, “implementing all MAPI layers on the server side has required more than five years’ work involving several developers . BlueMind’s version 4, which was released in early April, is the only solution in the world that’s fully natively compatible with Outlook without the need of a connector. This is a true achievement, and above all, it finally provides a unique opportunity for businesses to reconcile user satisfaction with enterprise sovereignty.”

This latest version of BlueMind brings a definitive solution to the current near-monopoly in the enterprise email market. By enabling organisations to keep the Outlook client transparently, but also to use other clients such as Thunderbird, webmail or mobile applications with the full array of collaborative features, the BlueMind solution offers an open, cheaper, European alternative for email.


In conclusion…

As Europe is finally rallying around the issue of digital independence, BlueMind is giving organisations the freedom to choose when it comes to their most critical, most-used application. At last, they can keep the Outlook client transparently and move to a European open-source solution. Organisations no longer have to rely on US solutions to preserve their users’ habits. User satisfaction and company sovereignty are now compatible in a sector that was believed to be lost to US giants: enterprise email. The revolution has begun. 

To find out more, come and see us at the BlueMind Summit for a unique opportunity to meet the players in this revolution and start on a path towards healthier, independent and controlled ICTs.

Find out all about BlueMind v4 here.

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