The Future of Client-Based Email and Attached Documents

Email is the most widely-used communication and collaboration tool in business today. In hindsight, its rapid adoption and widespread appeal for business was an obvious evolution — with features like instant accessibility, easy document and image sharing, time and date-stamps, and, in most cases, the electronic equivalent of a permanent paper-trail. The leading purveyors of desktop software in the 1990’s clearly foresaw this potential; creating client-based email applications such as Lotus Notes, Outlook, and Eudora that capitalized on these benefits. A decade later client-based email is the de facto standard for business communications. With handy extra features like calendars, address books, workflow tools and integration into CRM systems, if it has to do with a business process, it is probably available for your client-based email application.

But is client-based email as we know it today on the way out? Several factors lead us to believe that it’s a strong possibility:

  • Dramatically improved web-based email applications with built-in business process functionality
  • Increasing demand for better email access via mobile devices
  • Government-mandated archiving standards and the logistical obstacles of managing client software and email stored on client desktops
  • The rapid migration of business software from traditionally client-based applications to web-based application or services
  • Widespread adoption of web-ready image and document attachment standards such as PDF, XPS, JPEG, and other similar formats
  • Growing availability of software for viewing, marking-up, versioning, and collaborating on industry-specific or proprietary attachments completely over the web including: AFP, PDF, PCL, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, TIFF and DICOM to name a few

Does this mean that you won’t be using a desktop email application to access your email in five years? Not necessarily. Microsoft and the other Desktop email applications certainly have a vested interest in staying relevant for businesses. There is a good chance, however, that these applications won’t be accessing or storing email the same way five years from now. This is especially true for businesses that access email via POP3 where email is downloaded and stored on the client, and IMAP which is extremely slow when using mobile devices over low-speed internet connections.

Even in Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Server environments, where built-in capabilities for server-side archiving and web access to email has existed for almost a decade, features are continually put in place that recognize the growing demand for web access to email with client-application-like functionality. For example, Microsoft’s Outlook Web Access (OWA) for Exchange 2003 was updated to look and act much like the Outlook 2003 desktop client, and Exchange 2007 promises “A rich Outlook-like experience from any Internet connected computer with a supported browser.”

This begs the question, if you’re not going to store email on the client-side, and you can get most of the functionality of desktop email applications completely through a web browser, why bother with a client application at all? For years we’ve watched traditionally client-based business software transitioning into web-based products and services including CRM, Document Management, and BPM systems to name a few. How long will it be until business email follows suit?

The answer is not likely very long. But there are still major obstacles that have to be overcome before web-based email gains the foothold in the business world that it has established in private usage. Certainly, the performance of web-based email could lag significantly behind desktop email applications depending on your network. Getting it up to speed could be a significant investment.

But an even more immediate obstacle exists. It has to do with the sharing of attached documents and images. Currently there are only a few formats that can be viewed inline in a standard web browser without a client-side plug-in or 3rd party technology on the server-side. This is especially true for proprietary and specialized formats like Microsoft Office, AFP, PCL, and TIFF. It’s pretty hard to justify the investment of going completely web-based with email, when for most businesses, viewing, marking-up, versioning, and collaborating on documents via email still involves downloading the attached file and invoking a desktop application.

The technology has existed for years for displaying nearly every conceivable document and image format completely via the web with Java, ActiveX and .NET imaging libraries and applications. However, until recently, these capabilities have not been adopted by any of the largest web-based email providers, and their application in email attachment viewing is still quite limited (For a discussion on how to use a Java Imaging SDK to view email attachments, see our blog).

Enter Google. While some ISP web-mail services have offered basic online attachment viewing for some time (such as NetZero’s Photo Viewer), Google’s addition of inline Microsoft Word and Open Office Document Viewing in December of 2005 paved the way for its more recent support of other useful document formats, such as Microsoft Excel and PDF. Google’s free web-based Google Docs, allows for the viewing, editing, annotation and versioning of these vital document formats directly through your Google account, independent of any native applications or plug-ins. There are indications that PowerPoint support is coming soon as well.

Excel? PowerPoint? PDF? Do those sound like formats for public or business consumption? The other big players in web-based email, Yahoo and Microsoft haven’t been slacking either. Yahoo recently reworked its email client to be AJAX-based, which gives their users more desktop-application-like functionality, like drag-and-drop folders. As we mentioned before, Microsoft has bolstered its web-based access to Exchange Server 2007. Also, the recent release of Windows Vista and .NET Framework 3.0 allows for the display of Microsoft’s new document interchange format, XPS, directly in Internet Explorer 7 — a feature that could have big implications for web-based viewing of email attachments.

It’s only a matter of time before web-based document creation and viewing technology like Google Docs becomes engrained in the public consciousness. Will this lead to the ultimate decline of client-based email? Will the IT Management advantages and cost savings for compliance and archiving, client software maintenance, and potential liability of storing email on the client push some early-adopters into implementing their own smaller-scale web-based email systems? We think so, but only time will tell.