Browser mail emerging trend

The days of buying into a client/server messaging architecture may be over, as proprietary mail clients appear to be dying.

The days of buying into a client/server messaging architecture may be over, as proprietary mail clients -- under pressure from mail-enabled Web browsers -- appear to be dying.

The shift toward browser-based mail won't happen overnight. This has been a banner year for mail clients, and companies that have begun large-scale rollouts of these products are expected to continue their deployments.

But the tide is definitely starting to turn. More companies are opting to roll out World Wide Web browsers as their principal mail client or at least are planning to offer browsers as an alternative for users who don't require full-blown mail clients, according to analysts and users.

Users are pushing for browser access to messaging servers because it lets them easily fetch mail from the road and access multiple mail servers.

What may be a boon for users could leave information systems managers cold. Concerns revolve around support nightmares, increasingly fatter browsers, application development issues and a lack of control over what users run on the desktop.

On the plus side, IS managers are applauding client choices for mail servers and says browsers will work for many users.

"Either way, they are bracing themselves. We are moving toward the separation of mail clients from mail servers," says David Marshak, a vice-president at Patricia Seybold Group, a market research firm in Boston.

Mail clients are generally proprietary applications that exploit a full array of accompanying back-end messaging servers. Browsers, on the other hand, provide basic mail features, work with an array of mail servers and generally require fewer desktop resources.

The dominant messaging vendors -- Lotus, Microsoft and Novell -- have recently announced plans to broaden the choice of clients that can run with their servers. Lotus and Novell have Java applets in the works that will add some of the choicest features of mail clients to most browsers. And although Microsoft will soon begin offering Outlook, its mail and groupware client, it also plans to give users the option of running browsers with Exchange.

The flexibility to go with either a Notes client or a browser is a good thing, says Tim Crawford, a technical project manager at National Semiconductor in Santa Clara, California, a large Notes shop. But touting browsers as light clients may not hold true anymore, he says.

"Netscape's Navigator, the browser we support here, can be fat if you add a lot of specialised plug-ins and goodies," Crawford says.

Also at issue is the fact that mail clients and Web browsers don't have the same mail server functionality. As a result, applications developed for a proprietary mail client can't be easily deployed to browser users.

"Before we do any development, we have to know whether our target users have Web browsers or Notes clients, and we'd like that to change," says Motti Goldberg, chief architect at US West, in Denver, a big Notes shop.

"The automated replication add-ons and Java applets in the works from several messaging vendors will be difficult to support and have a lot of security issues," says Blane Woodard, manager of IS at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance in Milwaukee.

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