The buzz around the annual Microsoft Exchange Conference last week was a little louder this year, as hundreds of Vars and developers gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, to receive the low-down on the software giant's revamped Exchange software, formally codenamed Platinum.
Although Microsoft is no longer generating the same sort of fanatical cult-like following Linux is enjoying, cohorts of the Microsoft faithful congregated en masse to hear its messaging mantra.
Evangelising about the release, Microsoft unsurprisingly named its product Exchange 2000 Server, and handed out about 400,000 Beta 3 CDs to attendees. Due out in the first half of 2000, after the Windows 2000 OS is released, the product is already being touted as a Lotus Notes killer. Claiming it makes further roads into Lotus' installed Notes user base, the vendor also said Exchange 2000 will generate extra business for Microsoft resellers.
Research from market analyst firm IDC revealed that prior to the release, Exchange is already catching up on its more established rival, Lotus, especially in the European market. A source at IDC claimed analysts were betting on when Exchange would eventually overtake Notes.
During 1998, Microsoft's Exchange had 4996 European users and 2990 first-time users, while Notes had 8653 total users but 3720 first-time users. In the first half of 1999, figures were less emphatic as Notes only notched up 2265 first-time users. Exchange wasn't far behind with 1921.
Coming on strong
Rebecca Wettemann, program manager for European collaborative technologies at IDC, said although it was hard to know what would be in the final release, Exchange 2000 is going to be strong competition for Notes. She added: "Exchange has made huge progress in Europe over the past few quarters. Notes seems to have neglected the UK market, whereas Microsoft's Exchange capitalises on being part of the entire back office package."
Commenting on the prospects of Microsoft resellers winning more business from Lotus, Wettemann said: "It's always a great advantage to have Microsoft behind you."
Focus on SME
She added that the focus for both companies and Vars should be the growing SME market. "Both vendors have different tactics for tackling SME, but both know it's critical to increase penetration there," Wettemann said.
But Doug Stumberger, product manager at Microsoft Exchange Server group, said he expected the lead in the messaging market to swing between Microsoft and Lotus. He added that it was hard to predict too far into the future, but said the company was confident about continued strong Exchange sales and the prospects for the product.
He added that Microsoft is aggressively pursuing Lotus business partners and claimed the partner opportunities around Exchange 2000 would mean many would take on Exchange alongside Notes.
A hard act to follow
However, John Masters, marketing director at Lotus business partner NotesWare, said the messaging market was like choosing a religion: "Once someone is committed, it's very hard to persuade them to change to something else.The death of Notes has been predicted since the early 90s, but it's still going strong.
"Microsoft will always be in catch-up mode and there is still a big 'if' surrounding whether or not it will shed certain features to meet the shipment date."
Paul Maguire, software division business manager at Lotus business partner Penagen Computing, said he is not worried about the Microsoft release having an impact on Notes sales.
"I don't see how any product can compete with Notes in certain areas. The only problem with Notes is that it is so diverse and vast that, to a degree, it confuses the user," he said.
Masters added: "You may laugh at some of the things Microsoft comes up with, but you always have to take it seriously."
Best of three
Stumberger pointed out three key design goals in Exchange 2000 where Vars had the best opportunities to capitalise on the product.
The enhanced focus on reliability, scalability and performance allow the product to scale up to tens of millions of users, Stumberger claimed. This aspect of Exchange is expected to make it attractive to ASPs and ISPs hosting application and messaging systems.
The second feature, a native XML technology called Web Store, represents one of the most significant opportunity for partners. Stumberger said Web Store positioned Microsoft's Exchange as an application development platform and would allow third-party developers to create some unique business technology.
The third area Stumberger mentions plays on the software giant's knowledge worker philosophy and allows connection of technology such as video conferencing.
The push to Windows 2000
Although some questions are still being asked about the interdependence between Windows 2000 and Exchange 2000, as well as the migration path from the existing Exchange directory to Active Directory, Stumberger said the tie-in would not slow Exchange sales. Instead, he expects Exchange 2000 to push sales of the OS.
James O'Neil, technical director at Microsoft training specialist SHX, also expects Exchange to push Windows 2000 adoption. He said: "People are dying for it to come out, and although some customers may drag their feet, for most, needing Platinum will make up their minds about migrating to Windows 2000.
"I'm afraid to get in between customers and Platinum because I'll be killed in the rush."
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