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Yahoo's secret Google Docs killer: Zimbra

Zimbra: More than just a fancy e-mail client.

Last September, Yahoo acquired Zimbra, an enterprise Web email company. Zimbra is an impressive product. It does e-mail in a browser better than you've ever seen it. The company also makes a business-class e-mail server, and many of its services interconnect to Microsoft's e-mail products--the Exchange server and the Outlook client. Nonetheless, it is hard, at first glance, to see how Zimbra fits into Yahoo's business. Yahoo previously acquired OddPost, another dazzling e-mail technology company, and it was still in the process of rolling out OddPost-powered improvements to its millions of Yahoo Mail users when it acquired Zimbra.

But when I sat down with Zimbra CEO Satish Dharmaraj to get a demo of the new offline e-mail client (very impressive), the importance of Zimbra to Yahoo became clear. Zimbra is not just an e-mail play. It's a nascent productivity suite. While aside from its well-developed e-mail offering it's still a very young product, it looks like it could eventually become a competitor to Google Docs and Google Apps (Google's consumer and business productivity suites, respectively) and potentially a competitor to Microsoft Office. On the other hand, if Microsoft acquires Zimbra, then this initiative will be in serious jeopardy, since it's doubtful Microsoft would scrap its own developing online suite products in favor of Zimbra's.

Is this the Web app or the desktop client? It's hard to tell the difference.

At any rate, here's what Zimbra has that makes it an emerging threat to other business productivity suites: first, it has a complete e-mail product set, including a mailbox service and a very strong client--online, offline, and mobile. The relatively new offline client is especially interesting: It uses the Firefox core (called Prism), but you'd never know you were in a browser-based app. Even links in e-mails to Web sites don't by default go to your Firefox browser; instead, they go the system default. If your PC is set to open up URLs with Internet Explorer, that's what the Zimbra client will do.

The Zimbra e-mail client is extensible through "Zimlets," which is Zimbra's word for code that tells the Zimbra app what to do with certain types of links. It's pre-coded to recognize URLs and pop up a preview when you hover over a link; and it offers intelligent options to pull up relevant data when it sees addresses, airline flight information, and stock market tickers. Zimbra administrators can add their own Zimlets as well, such as hooks to CRM apps like, bug tracking (Bugzilla), a local wiki, and so on.

Zimbra's synchronization engine runs separately from the client and can be applied to more than e-mail. Part of Zimbra's emerging suite of business apps includes a budding document editor that lets you create "notebooks" that act as directories with different "pages" (documents) inside them. All the pages are word processing files now, although you can insert an extremely rudimentary spreadsheet into a page if you like. Zimbra has no current plans to build out its spreadsheet. No doubt the company waiting to see which way the Microsoft deal falls before trying to build an Excel competitor.

Zimbra now has a document editor and a repository for shared files, too.

Zimbra pages can be shared, wiki-like, but can't be edited in parallel as Google Docs can. That feature will be added in Q3, Dharmaraj told me.

Zimbra is currently pushing hard to win education (university) clients as well as ISPs; it has Comcast as customer, for example, although the suite hasn't yet been rolled out. The Yahoo subsidiary's focus on building out its e-mail app and winning big customers that account for thousands of users each is smart, but going on underneath that is a ramp-up of adding other productivity tools that's even more clever. The offline client is a key part of that strategy. With it, no matter what Zimbra builds, it can offer its users an experience that goes beyond just the Web.

For another look at a clever product that agnostic of the user's platform, see Evernote: "A tool for lazy slobs."