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Following a string of acquisitions, new product development and vendor chest pounding this year, the cloud collaboration wars are shaping up to be a key competitive battleground. Cloud computing providers are fortifying their positions, aiming to be one-stop shops for enterprises to shed internal infrastructure and move to online collaboration and communications. With this market focused heavily on software capabilities, and a healthy ecosystem of smaller players and startups filling in the gaps, watch this space carefully for more consolidation and acquisitions.
Cloud collaboration has now expanded beyond the core of e-mail communications to include social networking, group content creation and management, presentation sharing, project management, integrated voice and video, calendaring, scheduling and more. Let’s take a look at the big players and other possible entrants.
Microsoft (s MSFT) is the undisputed legacy king of enterprise communications with its Exchange mail platform, which continues to hold ground in some part because so many users have been weaned on the Outlook interface. Now Microsoft has put its marketing muscle behind its Business Productivity Online suite which includes Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and Office Communications Online. Microsoft hosts these services, but sells them directly and through partners.
Anxious to defend its turf, the company has launched a competitor-focused website WhyMicrosoft.org WhyMicrosoft, which explicitly details the benefits of the Microsoft offering over IBM (s IBM), Google (s Goog) Apps, OpenOffice, and interestingly, Cisco (s CSCO). The installed base, breadth of platform, and user-addiction factors are likely to favor Microsoft for the short term, but its leading position is by no means guaranteed.
In January, IBM hit the PR accelerator when it announced that Panasonic had chosen LotusLive, planning to eventually convert 380,000 employees to web-based mail. Claiming it as the industry’s largest cloud-computing contract, the deal gives IBM and LotusLive a renewed lease to play in the cloud collaboration space, and according to reports, also includes other online collaboration offerings such as calendars, web meetings, file sharing, and social networking. Few companies have the size and scope of IBM to help enterprises of this size manage these implementations worldwide, so expect to see IBM continue with global deals that wrap LotusLive into a giant package of outsourced IT services.
Perhaps the most exciting cloud collaboration offering from a product perspective is Google Apps, which includes Mail, Docs, Groups, Sites, and Video. While certainly lagging in some of the functionality delivered by Microsoft, Google continues to add new features at a blistering pace. The company has its own enterprise customer roster and has been actively promoting Google Apps through its Gone Google campaign.
While traditionalists claim that Google’s offerings lack the sophisticated capabilities of Exchange or Office, many see them as light years ahead on the collaboration side. Anyone who has jointly edited a Google Doc should be able to attest to that. And as the world seems to move away from the benefits of fancy font formatting to the speed and efficiency of easy sharing, Google might be in the best position to capitalize on the cloud collaboration race. But perhaps the dark horse is Google’s mobile strategy. Android and the NexusOne phone already appear to be more innovative than Windows Mobile competition, and the integration with Google Apps could dramatically accelerate business adoption.
VMware / Zimbra
VMware (s VMW) boldly entered the cloud collaboration race when it acquired Zimbra in January. Largely hidden within Yahoo! (s YHOO) from its initial acquisition, Zimbra will now get the support needed to emerge on the grander stage. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite has one of the most interesting deployment models in the industry. By providing compatitibility with a variety of mail clients such as Outlook and Apple Mail, Zimbra leaps over the competition by eliminating the troublesome issue of asking users to give up their familiar mail program interfaces.
It should be noted, too, that the top three executives listed on the VMware leadership page have a combined 47 years of experience at Microsoft. These folks know how Microsoft profited from communications and collaboration products, and are likely to be in a good position to chip away at that market position.
Without a formidable e-mail offering, many of the other collaboration players are relegated to fill in elsewhere. Oracle (s ORCL) plans to develop Oracle Cloud Office following the OpenOffice aquisition through Sun to integrate desktop, web and mobile interaction. And Cisco will approach the market through its unified communications offerings and WebEx products.
Let’s also remember that collaboration habits are changing. As we move away from e-mail to other communications mechanisms like instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, perhaps the dominance of the e-mail core will evaporate. Salesforce.com is taking this approach with the introduction of Chatter, leapfrogging the e-mail playing field entirely to social communications.
Meanwhile, the open source and freeware worlds are waking up to the promise of online collaboration, and there are many free, standalone cloud collaboration products. We covered many useful ones here.
There is still a long road to hoe for many users to give up their affinity for Microsoft Outlook and Office. But it appears that now, more than ever, cloud collaboration could turn the tides toward a new slate of solutions.