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Webmail seen as cure for troublesome e-mail clients

If Web-based e-mail functionality increases as predicted, it could erase e-mail clients from millions of corporate desktops. That would be a boon for many e-mail administrators burdened by the complex and finicky clients.

p>Web-based e-mail, or Webmail, has brought e-mail access to millions of PC users. In the near future, if Webmail functionality increases as predicted, it could erase e-mail clients from millions of corporate desktops. That would be a boon for many e-mail administrators burdened by the complex and finicky clients.

"Webmail is going to change the landscape of messaging", said Julie Hanna Farris, founder of Scalix Corp., a messaging systems vendor. "As we move toward an always-connected existence, the usage of anytime-anywhere, browser-based e-mail is going to become much more pervasive."

Web-based mail uses a browser, going over HTTP to access mail. In its simplest business implementation, said Farris, the application resides on the Web and all you need on the desktop is a browser.

The simplicity of Webmail will spur wider usage in the enterprise, said Michael Osterman, principal analyst and founder of Black Diamond Wash.-based Osterman Research. "The advantage is that you don't have client software to manage, maintain and deploy."

Webmail dovetails with businesses' move to more Web-based applications and thinner clients, Osterman said. More and more feature-rich, zero-install applications are being developed and adopted, he said.

Today, most vendors offer Webmail as an auxiliary to their e-mail client offerings. Such products include IBM Lotus Domino WebMail; Oracle Webmail; Novell NetMail; Sendmail Mobile Message Server from Sendmail Inc.; and Scalix Web Access.

While most are simple browser-based Web applications, some Webmail products do require special add-ons. For example, Farris noted, Microsoft Outlook Web Access requires installation of Active X control, and other approaches require plug-ins to be installed or Java to be resident on the desktop.

Standalone Webmail software from the open source side includes Open WebMail, and SquirrelMail.

In the enterprise market, Webmail has been readily adopted as a secondary means of e-mail access because it offers the convenience of secure anywhere, anytime access.

Mobile, deskless or home-based knowledge workers were the first to get Webmail from their companies. Webmail gives them e-mail through shared computers, mobile devices or home computers in settings where access to a Web browser is easier than connecting a fully functioning e-mail client, according to John Stormer, senior vice president of Sendmail Inc. Retail, manufacturing and transportation industries were early Webmail adopters.

Today, Webmail is being rolled out to workers who haven't been given e-mail before, according to the experts interviewed for this story. In particular, they said, Webmail provides a means to manage and deploy corporate communications and compliance.

In some industries, such as manufacturing, knowledge workers are only 30% of the workforce, Farris noted. Webmail makes it possible for a manufacturer to communicate with the other 70% more effectively and less expensively.

These deskless workers typically do not require the additional groupware functionality – calendaring, scheduling, collaboration, etc. -- that comes with e-mail clients like Microsoft Outlook, according to Stormer.

That would not be the case if Webmail was the primary e-mail tool for all employees, said Kat Podgornoff, e-mail administrator for Golden Gate University in San Francisco, Calif. "Users want ubiquitous access to e-mail, but want access to all of the collaborative bells and whistles traditionally supported by a client," she said.

To close the gap, Webmail will need to become more closely tied to corporate resources, like directories, and synchronization of messages and address books, said Stormer. John Wu believes that Webmail must offer the ability to read and compose e-mails offline and speed of access equal to desktop e-mail clients. Wu is systems engineer at messaging software provider Kerio Technologies, Inc.

More and more, Webmail is offering the enterprise-ready features now available in rich e-mail clients, Osterman said. "The difference between the full client and the Webmail client is really not nearly as pronounced as it used to be," said Osterman. In fact, some Webmail offerings look so much like a full desktop client that users don't notice the difference between them, he said.

"CIOs see enough functionality that they think that we can roll out Webmail as a primary way of accessing mail," Farris said.

Right now, the State of Massachusetts is rolling out 5,000 desktops, and the majority of those are going to run Scalix Web Access only as the exclusive mail and calendaring client.

Farris predicted that, by or before early 2006, Scalix Web Access will have all the features needed to completely replace e-mail clients.

Golden Gate University is now moving to the latest version of Novell GroupWise, which has a robust Web access offering. "We expect it will cover much, but not all, of the ground generally exposed between the e-mail client and Web version," Podgornoff said.

The more Webmail can be used, the merrier e-mail administrators will be, experts say. Admins like Webmail, said Wu, because it's easier to set up and support than e-mail clients.

"They don't have to worry about setting up and supporting the end users' home e-mail client, just go to a Web site and type in the end users' credentials," he said.

Webmail administration requires less time, and is therefore cheaper, than mail client administration, our sources said.

"With Webmail, you don't have to touch the desktop," said Osterman. "So, it is much easier to do upgrades, and you get more portability because all the user needs is access to a browser."

Ed Bailey, director of information systems for University of Florida's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has worked with client- and Web-based mail systems, and he likes the latter best.

"An e-mail client – and Outlook, in particular – is often unstable, tending to crash frequently," said Bailey. "It takes up tremendous resources, poses configuration issues, and slows down users' computers. Also, it's more prone to viruses that use the html-rendering in Outlook to execute."

Security is a huge concern with traditional e-mail clients. But that is not the case with Webmail, said Bailey. All e-mail data and the e-mail application are on the server, so the desktop is no longer a point of vulnerability.

The rich-client architecture, of which e-mail clients are a part, poses both security and administration problems, said Osterman. Rich clients still reign, so he doesn't predict an immediate wholesale swapping out of desktop e-mail clients for Webmail. But, more companies are moving toward slimming clients, and that plays in Webmail's favor.

"That said, I think there are advances in Webmail that can give companies reasons to swap," Osterman said. This article originally appeared on

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