Microsoft Outlookis the best corporate email and scheduling tool. That’s a tough statement to make as an open source advocate, but until the open source equivalent called Evolution matures, Outlook will remain the corporate standard for email, calendar and scheduling.
For personal and small-business email, Outlook sucks. It’s bloated, expensive and has a problem with IMAP. Mozilla’s Thunderbird is far superior, allowing for better IMAP support as well as nice integration with Gmail. For the personal user, a cocktail of Thunderbird and Google Calendar is recommended.
For the corporate user, however, Outlook can be a powerful tool when combined with Microsoft Exchange. Exchange allows multiple users to use Outlook to share calendars and schedules, as well as use the same pool of contacts. Exchange allows for the synchronization of those calendars, emails and contacts with mobile devices like Windows Mobile phones and the iPhone without the hassle of plugging your phone into a computer to sync with Outlook.
I’ve run a Microsoft Exchange server in the past. It comes with Windows Small Business Server and is fairly expensive. It’s a pain to configure, as it pretty much requires a separate server installation, as well as mapping a myriad of ports through the router. Dealing with security certificates, port mapping and user accounts through Windows Server is only slightly more entertaining than pouring lemon juice on a paper cut.
Enter hosted Exchange. My experience is with a company called AppRiver, though there are many providers. These providers charge a nominal monthly fee per user to provide access to a control panel that lets you configure everything through an easy web interface.
Your monthly fee of somewhere between $10 and $30 per month, depending on the provider, provides you with a license for Microsoft Outlook so you’re spared the abhorrent fate of actually purchasing Microsoft Office or Microsoft Outlook separately. After you download and install it, the hosted Exchange provider will configure it to access Exchange through HTTP, which means that wherever you are you can get your email and access your calendar and contacts.
There are alternatives. Evolution was mentioned earlier in this article and offers cross-platform integration with Exchange. Google Apps provides a complete solution for sharing emails and schedules as well as documents and spreadsheets. Google Apps works great if you don’t have any Windows Mobile devices in your company. For geeks with a time surplus, there’s always open-xchange which offers an open source clone of Microsoft Exchange, but you’re still left with the headache of certificates, port mapping and user configuration, not to mention the initial installation and configuration of open-xchange on a stand-alone computer. Zimbra offers a comparable solution to Exchange, but the price isn’t much different and Yahoo! recently purchased Zimbra, so who knows how long they will even exist. If Microsoft finally puts Yahoo! out of its misery with what is now surely a mercy bid, Zimbra’s chances of remaining on open source architecture are pretty slim.
I struggled for many years to try to get multiple installations of Outlook to work together, and I’m pretty resourceful with available add-ons and utilities. Only through Exchange can this functionality be truly achieved. Only through hosted Exchange can this achievement come without a headache or a large financial expenditure. If you don’t have Windows Mobile, Google Apps is a fantastic solution. If you need collaboration with multiple users of Outlook with Windows Mobile devices, Exchange is currently the unfortunate solution.