Open Source innovation

Steve Hamm

Open source software goes a lot of good things. It's inexpensive, shared, and creates alternatives to monopolistic proprietary software. Up until recently, however, it hasn't been very technically innovative. Most packages so far have copied the basic functionality of pre-existing proprietary software. Now, that's changing. Flock is one example. It's the new open-source browser designed with social computing in mind. BW Online published a story about it yesterday. Another fresh example: Zimbra, an alternative to Microsoft's Exchange server program. Its goal is spare people many of the headaches of managing hundreds of e-mails a day.

While Yahoo, AOL, and Google are taking on Microsoft in the sphere of consumer e-mail, Zimbra Inc. is focusing on enterprise mail. The two-year-old company, which launched publicly on Oct. 5, offers a Web e-mail client, but most of its engineering work is concentrated on the server. Its Zimbra Collaboration Suite runs on Linux, Unix, Windows and MacOS servers, and supports most popular e-mail clients, including Microsoft's Outlook. Zimbra (name taken from a Talking Heads song. What's not to like?) has some pre-existing competition in the open-source sphere, including Scalix. The company launched a beta test over the summer and expects to produce a commercial version of its software by the end of October.

Zimbra claims it's pioneering with technical innovations. “E-mail can be more self-organizing,” says Zimbra President and CTO Scott Dietzen. The company has architected its mail server from the ground up to work on the Web, using open industry tech standards including AJAX, XML, and Web containers. It has built in advanced search, archiving and disaster-recovery features. Thanks to its indexing, you don’t have to set up and manage dozens of file folders. Instead, you can do a search search for related e-mails. Then you can save important searches as virtual file folders. Another feature, called “active messaging,” allows you to see a summary of the contents of attachments and links simply by mousing over them. Right click on a telephone number and you automatically make a phone call via Skype.

Rebuttal comments are welcome from Microsoft and Scalix.

Zimbra has a bunch of sharp people behind it. The CEO and co-founder is Satish Dharmaraj, formerly of Sun, Openwave, and Onebox. Dietzen, of course, is the former CTO of BEA Systems. One financial backer is serial entrepreneur Eric Hahn, who’s famous for being the CTO of Netscape. And a key VC is Kevin Harvey of Benchmark, who also backed open-source standouts Red Hat and MySQL.

Harvey believes Zimbra can achieve that kind of success. “It’s not a wannabe Exchange. It’s better than Exchange,” he says.

A good measure of success for Zimbra would be taking 5% or 10% of the market as some of the legacy e-mail systems fade away. At 10%, it would have the heft to be a real alternative to Microsoft’s Exchange in the enterprise. It would also go a long way to proving that innovation matters in the open-source sphere.

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