Webmail.us has just released the fourth generation of its Web Email platform, replacing its legacy software with an AJAX framework. They're promising their users "a markedly faster, better performing experience" with its new Ajax version. Webmail.us provides email hosting services to more than 23,000 small-medium businesses and is one of a number of smaller, niche companies in the Web email market.
Now you'd think the giants - Microsoft, Google and Yahoo - would be totally dominant in this market and so there'd be little chance for the little guys? Hotmail/Windows Live Mail, Gmail and Yahoo! Mail all have huge user bases. But there are (as always) ways for the smaller companies to compete. Indeed it's comparable to the Personalized Start Page space, where small companies like Pageflakes and Netvibes are finding profitable niche markets - despite the presence of the big portals with similar products.
So in this post, let's take a high-level look at the Web Email market. My thanks to Webmail.us CEO Pat Matthews for talking to me about this.
The consumer market is fairly clear cut and dominated by Yahoo and Microsoft in particular (Google's Gmail is competitive too of course, but more on that below). In terms of the enterprise and small business market, Pat said that most organizations are running some sort of email server to provide employees with business email. Microsoft Exchange is the 800 pound gorilla in this market and there isn't a clear #2. However, Pat noted that competition on the rise for MS Exchange - especially in open source and the service provider markets.
Here then is a list of some of the companies in the Web email space:
Zimbra is getting a lot of buzz and some real traction in the marketplace. Their product is a lot more than just email - it is essentially a mini-suite of Web Office products. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite has email, contacts, group calendaring, word processing and spreadsheets. The latter two were just added this week, as part of the launch of Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) 4.0.
In my full review of Zimbra back in April, I was impressed that Zimbra is packed full of features. They have mashups and things like "Search Builder" and an RSS reader.
Zimbra has an open source component to their business model, whereby the software is open sourced and they generate revenue by supporting deployments of the open source software platform - as well as a network edition. Zimbra may be a good alternative to Exchange for businesses that want desktop software, but don't want to pay the high licensing fees associated with Exchange.
Webmail.us differentiates itself from Exchange and Zimbra by being a 100% hosted email model. Pat told me their customers prefer to outsource the hardware, software and security services (anti-spam, anti-virus, etc.). In the words of Pat, their customers "want to get rid of the software model altogether."
But how then does Webmail.us differentiate itself from the bigco Web Email services, not to mention web hosts and ISPs? Pat said there are three "philosophical ways" in which Webmail.us is different from the likes of Gmail and Yahoo:
"1) email hosting is all we do;
2) there is a large service component to our business; and
3) our services are subscription based as opposed to advertising support (we're completely ad-free)."
Gmail is my personal favorite Web email product, because of its innovative and Web-native features - such as search and "conversation view". Admittedly Gmail has more of a techie following than any of the other service providers, so in that respect it's struggled to gain mainstream adoption - in comparison to Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.
Earlier this year Google announced a beta Enterprise service, unimaginatively named 'Gmail for your domain'. It is basically Gmail offered as a back-end service and Google provides all the required hardware and software. Each enterprise end-user gets 2 gigabytes of storage, the same as consumer users of Gmail currently. Plus there's access to Google Talk (VoIP/chat), Google Calendar and a Control Panel to manage accounts.
Sproutit is a startup that offers business software to small businesses. Sproutit has an interesting product called Mailroom, which is a hosted email management service. Where Mailroom is different is that it enables you to "organize your email and suggest replies to save you time and keep you better in touch with your customers." So it helps companies use email to keep track of sales leads and customer communications, which makes it as much a CRM tool as an email hosting service.
Yahoo Mail is currently in beta. Like all the other Ajax webmail products, this enables it to mimic the functionality of a traditional desktop email app. Indeed Yahoo Mail sticks to the traditional email interface, but it has some innovative features too - such as integrating RSS. More PIM features are coming soon, as revealed in my recent interview with Yahoo's Bradley Horowitz (VP of Product Strategy) and Caterina Fake (leader of the Technology Development Group). Along with Hotmail, Yahoo Mail has a huge user base - well over 200 Million unique users.The new Ajax version of
Hotmail / Windows Live Mail
Windows Live Mail is the replacement for Hotmail, but is still in beta and only available in certain countries right now. According to Niall Kennedy's review back in November, it has been written from the ground-up to replicate a desktop application look and feel. It has Ajax, of course, and a similar user interface to Outlook. It is a three-column view and has access to calendar, contacts, and your "Today" view. Formerly code-named 'Kahuna', Windows Live Mail will replace Hotmail once it is complete.
Hotmail, one of the original webmail products, was launched in '96 and acquired by Microsoft in '97. But its day has past.
CNET recently did a comparison of the bigcos web email apps - concluding that Gmail is the best in terms of functionality. I agree, but would add that both Yahoo and Microsoft are catching up fast! Gmail has to be acknowledged though as the product that pushed Web email into the 21st century, with its Ajax interface and large storage capacity. Gmail basically forced the hand of Yahoo and Microsoft to follow suit with their own Ajax Web mail products.
In terms of the small companies battling for a niche in the Web email ecosystem, Zimbra, Webmail.us, Sproutit - and I'm sure many others - all have their place. While the bigcos will continue to dominate the consumer market, none of them yet have a compelling Web email product for the enterprise or small business market - so that's where the likes of Zimbra and webmail.us will shine.