E-Mail Web Clients Face Off for Users

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Editor's note: This is a corrected version of an article that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of Computerworld. The amount of disk space needed to install iNotes has been corrected to 40MB.

In the battle for best e-mail and groupware platform, every feature counts. So it's no surprise that both Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. are trumpeting the features of new Web-accessible user interfaces for their respective Exchange 2000 and Domino e-mail servers.

Microsoft's enhanced Outlook Web Access (OWA) is part of the recently shipped Exchange 2000 Server. Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus' iNotes Web Access for Domino 5.5 is in beta now for first-quarter release.

Both Outlook Web Access and iNotes Web Access present Web clients using newer versions of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer with a user interface for standard Domino and Exchange services such as

e-mail, scheduling, contacts and task lists. Both export a user interface to thin clients using Web-based technologies such as XML and Dynamic HTML.

But there are fundamental differences between the products. The biggest is off-line access: iNotes has it, OWA doesn't. But OWA claims to offer more extensive rich text editing and drag-and-drop features. And while some iNotes features require extra client code, OWA requires only a browser that's HTML 3.2-compliant or higher.

Users will sort through these and less significant differences as they make buying decisions.

In the Outlook Corner

The newest version of OWA provides access to e-mail, scheduling, contacts and any collaborative documents in the Exchange server's Web Storage System folders.

"We've tried to streamline OWA to look more like Outlook 2000," said Mark Adcock, product manager at Microsoft.

OWA supports any HTML 3.2 or higher browser, and since Exchange supports direct HTTP access to the information store, no additional client software is required, Adcock said. OWA leverages Internet Explorer 5.0's ability to support message

drag-and-drop and rich text editing. Of course, he said, "if you're using Navigator, you just don't get drag-and-drop."

For its part, Lotus claims the multivendor high ground, saying it left out message

drag-and-drop capability to provide parity for all browser users. (It does, however, offer drag-and-drop for file attachments.)

"There are some basic functions that we don't have in OWA," Adcock acknowledges. One is e-mail rules capabilities, which iNotes supports. Another is

off-line access.

"We do not carry off-line functionality [in OWA] like we do in Outlook 2000," Adcock said. But he added that Lotus' off-line ability requires "an additional install of code." Customers "were pretty clear that they wanted nothing to be downloaded onto that [client] machine," he said.

OWA security is limited to what Microsoft's Internet Information Server offers Web clients. Only OWA users who log in through a virtual private network are subject to Windows 2000 challenge response authentication. OWA and iNotes both support Secure Sockets Layer encrypted sessions, however.

In the iNotes Corner

INotes Web Access replaces Lotus' more limited Webmail user interface. This time around, said Ed Brill, group manager of marketplace strategy at Lotus, "we're committed to maaking it a full client." INotes shares some features with OWA, such as out-of-office notification and rich text, and offers others that OWA doesn't include, such as a spell checker. But the biggest differentiator is its ability to work off-line and replicate changes to the server.

For client installs, "[Users] don't have to deploy any software to the desktop," Brill claimed. The most basic client install creates a desktop icon. But support for e-mail file attachments requires a 384KB ActiveX control, and off-line capabilities require Domino Off Line Services (DOLS), which requires about 40MB of disk space and a Windows 95 or higher client. Also, custom Domino applications have to be

Web-enabled and configured to support DOLS, Brill added.

Neither iNotes nor OWA supports Secure Multipart Internet Mail for e-mail encryption, e-mail signatures or encryption of a local e-mail database. Neither has a file attachment viewer. And Lotus doesn't support some rich text functions that OWA said it offers, like tables, horizontal lines and support for embedded OLE objects.

INotes also requires a separate password for each iNotes Web Access client. "The authentication is based on Web authentication rather than Notes authentication," said product manager Paul Clark.

And users who log out see a message telling them to clear their browser cache. But you need to "train users to close their browser so that people don't backspace into your e-mail," he said. And open sessions don't time-out. "We are looking into session authentication," Clark added, but Lotus may have to wait for the second release of the product.

"The impact of iNotes is going to be strong. Employees want Web access," said Robert Mahowald, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp. He said Lotus has taken the lead, and while that's not going to change any minds in Exchange shops, it might win critical new accounts.

Replacement Wanted

Using these tools as supplemental clients is fine, but many information technology managers want a Web client that can replace the current client applications, said David Ferris, principal at San-Francisco-based Ferris Research.

"What people want is to be able to get rid of all this application-specific stuff. That would immensely reduce support requirements," Ferris said. The problem is, neither Web client fits the bill today. Both performance and features are lacking, he said.

"Three or four years from now, the clients will be good enough, and we'll have enough bandwidth," said Ferris. But for mobile users who want access from laptops, today's clients may just be good enough.

So where will it all lead? Mahowald gave Lotus this round. "[INotes Web Access] is not intended to match Outlook Web Access -- it's a couple of steps beyond, he said.

And going forward, said Ferris, "I think that Lotus will be ahead of Microsoft. They know they've got to move away from platform-specific clients."

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