In the E-mail world, the simple days of one client, one server are over.
Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. are once again preparing to upgrade their E-mail lines. As they do, it is becoming clear to IT managers that the Internet has changed traditional messaging to a model that allows for multiple, heterogeneous clients accessing the same server.
The two messaging leaders are offering a half-dozen clients each that harness the flexibility and power of standard Web protocols built into their client/server systems.
Next month at Internet World in Los Angeles, Microsoft will unveil Exchange 5.0, an upgrade of its mail system that will bring its total E-mail offerings to six clients, including a version of Outlook optimized for Exchange.
Last month, Lotus announced two full clients under development for Notes and Domino: Lotus Mail, a thin mail client, and a Java Edition of Lotus Mail. Also announced were Java-based E-mail and groupware components for browsers and network computers, which will ship in stages this year.
The client glut gives IT shops more choices, but also adds complexity. Selecting, supporting, installing and migrating users from mainframe or proprietary client/ server systems to open client/server and Internet groupware platforms extended for distributed use becomes increasingly difficult.
"It definitely introduces confusion with the number of options available," said Linda Gamble, manager of groupware services for Chase Manhattan Bank, in New York, which plans to use Lotus Notes as its primary E-mail client but is evaluating browsers and components for accessing the Notes server. "We're working aggressively on a plan, but we don't know the final outcome yet."
Lotus and Microsoft are spreading their client offerings over three levels of functionality. For Lotus, full-featured clients such as the forthcoming Notes client and Maui Domino clients include personal information management and robust Internet protocols for Web groupware.
At the middle tier are lightweight E-mail clients with Post Office Protocol 3 and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol support, such as Lotus' forthcoming Lotus Mail. Lotus Mail differs from Notes Mail in that it lacks some of the richer features such as calendaring and scheduling. Lotus Mail Java Edition, due next quarter, is a lighter, faster version of Lotus Mail.
On the low end, Lotus is shipping ActiveX E-mail and groupware components and has Java versions under development for browsers and network computers. A sixth client, Domino WebMail 4.5a template, now in beta testing, is targeted at Domino users.
As for Microsoft, Outlook, equipped with group calendaring and scheduling as well as task management, is being positioned as the full client for Exchange 5.0.
At the low end of the client, Microsoft will debut Exchange Active Server Components, also known as the Exchange Web Client, which is a set of scripts for browser mail access.
Microsoft also plans to ship interim updates of the current Exchange clients in 16-bit and 32-bit versions for customers not ready to migrate to Outlook.
To compound the confusion, Microsoft gives customers a choice of using the E-mail in-box within Windows 95, a special Internet Mail client for Internet Explorer, or both.
CIOs will likely select a subset of these clients, depending on their needs. But it might not be a decision managers are prepared for or should make now.
"The client choice has become almost like an infrastructure thing," said Dean Zaduck, manager of electronic commerce for the Bureau of National Affairs, in Washington. "You have to think about performance issues, training issues, compatibility and how each client will work remotely."
Analysts are having a tough enough time explaining the array of client choices to their customers.
"CIOs are confused. There's no question about it," said Matt Cain, a vice president of workgroup computing for Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "1997 is going to be remembered as the year of the confusing E-mail client choice."
Compounding the confusion among IT managers are stability and bug problems, as well as training and support issues. Also of concern are incompatibilities between E-mail clients--even those from the same vendor. For example, Microsoft advises that users not install Outlook and Exchange on the same workstation.
"I didn't know you couldn't run Outlook with Exchange and Schedule+," said Greg Askew, a senior information technology consultant with Business Information Technologies Inc., in Silver Spring, Md.
One Exchange IS manager said he's going to wait before upgrading. "We're going to try to keep it simple," said the IS manager at a pharmaceutical company that has committed to Exchange. "We're going to limit the choices and ignore the Outlook client for now."
According to most experts, the best tack is to wait and see how the computing climate pans out. It's important to balance the proprietary feature set with the strength of IP support. Intranets won't replace client/server groupware in the near future. In fact, E-mail may become a standard service within operating systems.
Or, as Chase's Gamble notes, the convergence of Web features in standard E-mail and groupware clients could make the decision a lot easier down the road. "Browsing is becoming so integrated with Notes, I don't see them as separate as they have been," Gamble said.