The question has left a lot of people shaking their heads in confusion lately, as executives from the three companies have traded public salvos while their lawyers have wrangled behind the scenes, according to sources close to the conflict.
Today, it is Lotus's turn. In a public statement, the IBM (IBM) subsidiary claimed the No. 1 spot in a pointed statement meant to correct "misinterpretations" of a preliminary market study by the Framingham, Massachusetts-based consulting firm International Data Corporation.
For the record, IDC--which routinely sizes computer software and hardware markets and will issue final 1996 email client results next month--puts Lotus first, Netscape second, and Microsoft in third place. The company and its data have been caught in the latest maelstrom of public relations posturing by email client makers.
IDC put out its own statement today, a correction to last week's preliminary market share figures that served as the launching pad for the latest controversy. The company estimated Lotus has 26 percent of the market, compared with Netscape's 17 percent and Microsoft's 14 percent share.
According to the preliminary research, IBM and Lotus together held the No. 1 position with 8.4 million new users for Notes, cc:Mail, and OfficeVision products. Netscape gained 5.5 million new users of the Netscape Mail component of the Navigator browser, while Microsoft took the third spot with 4.4 million new users of its Exchange and Mail products.
While analysts debate the usefulness and veracity of such figures, they said perceptions of market leadership can be very important to the business success of products slugging it out in "hothouse" markets such as corporate messaging, where the smallest of sales involve at least 50,000 seats, and one sale often leads to years of customer loyalty to the brand.
"It is a leapfrog game," said Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research. He said counting email users, while never a straightforward task, has become even more complicated by the changing technology and an increasing frequency of software giveaways meant to create market presence for a product and its maker.
"Choosing an email package is a strategic, enterprisewide commitment," said Brown. While it is "very important" to hang on to one of the top three spots in this marketplace, Brown said being first is not critical.
Analysts said companies do not often quote inaccurate figures. However, it is important to look behind the figures to what is actually being counted and then compare it to the company's claims.
For instance, IDC was bullish about Netscape in last week's report. It named the company as one of the chief beneficiaries of last year's astronomical growth in email usage last year. Fast growth of Internet-centered email and a decline in sale for email reliant on local area networks "vaulted Internet vendors, such as Netscape, to the top of the user market," the IDC report stated.
When the Web software titan's spinmeisters turned the accolade into the assertion that the company had "delivered email clients to more users than any other software company last year," they infuriated executives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Redmond, Washington.
Lotus president Jeff Papows today accused Netscape of "publicly blurr[ing] the distinction between full-function, commercial email and browser-type software designed primarily for consumer and home use."
Yet critics say Lotus is playing the same game. For instance, the IDC report counted by Lotus Notes and cc:Mail clients, which may skew figures since some companies may have picked up both clients through OEM and other bundling deals. While Lotus officials deny double-ownership is a big issue, critics said it is hard to say how many companies have two email systems on site but only use one.
Microsoft executives took a less public approach. They negotiated changes in the way IDC crunched the numbers that add three percentage points to the company's estimated market share. But company executives think Microsoft's share is undercounted.
Microsoft last night posted a document on its Web site that refutes the Netscape claims, according to Microsoft spokesman Greg Lobdell.
"We are in this market situation in which these market claims haven't been challenged," Lobdell said. Nevertheless, Microsoft will look to actual email deployments as a gauge of success this year, as Netscape adds to the competition for business customers.