Lessons learned in business: Technology Part 1

Robert Di Nero has a great scene in the beginning of the movie Ronin where he checks out the back of the restaurant he is to meet people. He later confirms that he never enters a room without knowing the way out. This should be your approach to technology. Technology by it’s very nature is ever changing, improving and getting cheaper. I recently interviewed an IT person who listed a lot of IBM experience. Since not many companies in our industry find IBM to be a good choice for just about anything, I had to ask him where he got al this experience. He told me that airlines were forced to maintain IBM systems because of legacy systems from as early as the 50’s and 60’s. Technology was limited back then, so there wasn’t a lot of exit routes.
A few years back I made a horrible mistake. I decided to put everyone on a Microsoft Exchange server. Most everyone who knows me knows I have little love of Microsoft, but Outlook is one product you have to give them credit for. People use it because it works. Exchange was a nice way of allowing everyone in the company to schedule with each other within their Outlook email client, and keep us all on the same page. But like the airlines, I didn’t see many exit routes for this. I was just excited that I could get a hosted version of Exchange and pay per seat as opposed to paying for a server lic. and then hire someone to maintain it.

Now a few years later, it something I can’t wait to get rid of. Every other calendar application has moved to an open standard of exchanging information. Apple’s iCal, Google Calendar, and even Mozilla’s Thunderbird have all taken to this standard. Everyone except Microsoft. If they were to move to allow Outlook this standard, they would lose the primary benefit of Exchange, and people like me would likely leave. So instead of innovating, Microsoft holds the world back so they can squeeze a few more months out of an antiquated technology.

Q: How many Microsoft employees does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, Bill Gates has declared darkness the new standard.
– Guy Kawasaki

Now nearly everyone in the company is addicted to Outlook/Exchange, but it doesn’t offer the features we want, or a good price point to add features. I would rather use Mail/iCal, Some people in the company have Treos, which would require an extra monthly expense to work with Exchange, and some people have Blackberries, which requires yet another expense.

I think the solution for us will be a hosted Zimbra solution. Zimbra allows connectivity with Outlook for calendar sharing, but also allows integration with Mail/iCal and other formats. They also offer built in support for Treo, and low cost support for Blackberry. On top of that, they have a beautiful AJAX interface for all their applications to access from any Web browser.
Zimbra is open source, so you can download this and run it right to a server. That is tempting, but the free version does not come with Outlook support, nor does it come with Blackberry support. These would be features in the pro version. In the end, we would only pay $20 per month for a company who is dedicated to hosting Zimbra for cliets, and helping migrate Microsoft victims over. This would include 2 gigs of storage in each box, as well as 1 hour of phone support time per month, which comes in handy for our non-tech people to get help on email issues. $20 per seat for enterprise email, a huge amount of storage space, and support is a great deal.

And if we grow past the point where a per seat charge is no longer financially wise, they can implement a full version of Zimbra on our server, and manage it for us for $500 per month. This would include 24/7 supports to make sure our email never goes down. This is a great deal for any large company who is currently using Exchange. Your server only limits the amount of email and storage.

Now if you’re a really small company, and you think you can make do with web calendaring, or you all use Mac and can just sync iCal, then you can just use normal pop mail or even Gmail with a nice interface. There is zero cost to that. But if you’re looking for the best email solution available right now at a budget price, you should check out Zimbra.

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