Perhaps you've had this experience: you're on the red-eye from L.A. to New York. You realize you need to access your e-mail. But you can't: you're offline. It will be hours until you land, and you're stuck.

For some companies, this scenario is one of several good reasons to seek out a better mousetrap than Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

Products such as Google's open source-based Google Gears API, Zimbra's Suite and Desktop, and IBM's Lotus Notes & Domino offerings allow users to work offline in a similar environment to their online product. While Microsoft does have offline offerings, they do not have the same functionality as their online product, users say.

A seamless transition

'What we can offer is a more seamless transition between online and offline,' notes John Kobb, vice president of marketing for San Mateo, Calif.-based Zimbra, which was recently purchased by Yahoo! 'You can take it on a plane with you. The administrators are saving the same information on the same server -- you can go and access the same information from a different computer,' he notes, whether that computer is an Apple or PC.

For small and mid-sized businesses, hosted solutions such as Zimbra's have considerable appeal, because 'you don't have to deal with storage and backup,' notes Erica Driver, principal analyst for enterprise messaging and collaboration with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

Other reasons to look beyond Outlook and Exchange, says Driver, include:

  • wanting a system based more on open-source standards,
  • preferring to cobble together a 'best of breed' email/backup/archiving system to what MS offers,
  • wanting a system not based on Microsoft due to lack of MS skills among workers
  • wanting a system that allows workers to move from computer to computer, including Apples to PCs, seamlessly

Zimbra's Kobb also notes the inherent cost savings in using a hosted system that is a 'one-stop shop' for messaging, archiving, and anti-spam/anti-virus protection, as opposed to budgeting each of these separately, either through several hosted solutions or in-house hardware. 'The total cost savings could be significant, 'he says, noting that Zimbra's hosted solution runs about $4/month per user.

Web 2.0 ready

Another consideration is that offerings like Zimbra's cut their teeth on Web 2.0-based technologies, so it's easier to link them to blogs, wikis, and other collaborative tools than the older Outlook. 'This is a real plus for products like Zimbra and Google,' says Driver. 'They have been quicker to adopt 2.0 into their products.' Likewise, IBM's Lotus Notes is well-known for its collaborative abilities, but is largely an enterprise-class product with a higher price tag.

The bottom line: MS Outlook and Exchange is not the only game in town. Keep an eye on these alternatives-- they may be a way to save your business time and money.

SIDEBAR: Email Alternatives to Watch

Zimbra offers hosted solutions featuring email, anti-spam/anti-virus, archiving, and collaborative tools.

IBM Lotus Notes & Domino offers a range of desktop options, including calendaring, email and collaborative tools. IBM also offers a range of archiving, security, and other solutions.

Google Gears API offers open-sourced based browser extension; easy to customize with additional functionality.