Cloud E-Mail Showdown: Gartner Says Google Gmail Ready To Rival Microsoft Exchange

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The enterprise version of Gmail, which has been in the market for roughly five years, is gathering steam within larger organizations, many with more than 5,000 seats, Gartner said.

Gartner's proclamation that Google's Gmail cloud e-mail is ready for prime time, comes after years of discussion over whether Google would be able to knock Microsoft Exchange and other rivals out of their comfy spots at the top of the cloud e-mail food chain.

"The road to its enterprise enlightenment has been long and bumpy, but Gmail should now be considered a mainstream cloud e-mail supplier," said Matthew Cain, research vice president at Gartner, in a statement. "While Gmail's enterprise e-mail market share currently hovers around 1 percent, it has close to half of the market for enterprise cloud e-mail. While cloud e-mail is still in its infancy, at 3 percent to 4 percent of the overall enterprise e-mail market, we expect it to be a growth industry, reaching 20 percent of the market by year-end 2016, and 55 percent by year-end 2020."

Gartner said that other than Microsoft Exchange, Google Gmail is the only e-mail system that has grown in the enterprise space in recent years, while other rivals like Novell GroupWise and IBM Lotus Notes/Domino have lost market share. Other rivals, including Cisco and VMware Zimbra have either folded or refocused their cloud e-mail plays.

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Cain and Gartner cautioned, however, that Google's push into the enterprise is not finished yet, and Google's focus on what has the broadest market appeal may limit its product features and capabilities, causing resistance from financial institutions, banks and other types of enterprises that require special capabilities.

Another potential hindrance to Google dominating the enterprise cloud e-mail space and displacing Microsoft Exchange is its resistance to back-end feature requests that large enterprises and systems integrators require. Gartner said Google's lack of transparency around continuity, security and compliance could be a turnoff for potential users.

Gartner recommended that businesses continue with their current on-premise e-mail upgrades while slowly moving to the cloud via a hybrid model.

"E-mail is not a commodity, and cloud e-mail is still maturing," Cain added. "We believe that, for most organizations, performing one more on-premises upgrade, which will take an organization through 2014, is the most prudent approach. A less-risky approach to cloud e-mail is via a hybrid deployment, where some mailboxes live in the cloud and some are located on premises. This hybrid model plays to Microsoft's strengths given its vast dominance of the on-premises email market."

Despite some hurdles, however, cloud e-mail will be a major battle ground between Microsoft and Google, much as the two tech titans have tussled for dominance in other cloud areas, like the fight between Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 for cloud productivity applications. Gartner said that the continuing cloud combat will be good for both companies and will thwart other competitors from gaining traction in the growing cloud e-mail market.

"The intense competition between Microsoft and Google will make both vendors stronger and enable them to apply cloud expertise to other enterprise cloud endeavors," Cain concluded. "The rivalry will make it difficult for other suppliers to compete directly in the cloud e-mail and collaboration space."