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E-mail for everybody

Some workers may not even have a desk, but that's not stopping some businesses from giving them an e-mail account. Is it wise, or are you opening up a can of workplace worms?

Some of the last bastions of the paper-based world are entering the digital age. E-mail -- a productivity messaging tool that most workers will tell you they simply cannot live without -- is now being pushed for the estimated 30% of the worldwide work force that doesn't have an inbox, much less a desk.

Using kiosks or shared desktops, factory workers, bank tellers, flight attendants, and others can log into their new e-mail accounts and receive information like pay stubs and corporate memos. Doing so saves their managers the expenses that would be incurred from the paper, printing and postage needed to send out information.

But that's not the real benefit, according to David Ferris, president of Ferris Research Inc., a messaging and collaboration specialist in San Francisco. He said that the value of extending e-mail to this breed of worker comes from "better communication, better quality of work and reduced cycle times."

Vendors are hoping that those improvements get businesses to open up their checkbooks.

"Everyone is pretty much paying attention to these users at some level, because they're all looking for ways to expand the [messaging] market," said Michael Osterman, a messaging expert who runs Black Diamond, Wash.-based Osterman Research Inc.

Just last month, two new offerings hit the market. IBM's Lotus unit released Workplace Messaging, a highly scalable, Web-based e-mail system built on the WebSphere application server and using DB2 as a message store. Meantime, Sendmail Inc. combined its Workforce Mail with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s ProLiant Servers and Intel Corp.'s Centrino wireless platform to form a Linux-based, low-end messaging package.

Companies like Rockliffe Inc. and Critical Path Inc. already have products for the baseline user, and messaging powerhouse Microsoft Corp. emphasizes the capabilities of Outlook Web Access.

According to Lotus manager of messaging solutions John Caffrey, Workplace Messaging takes his company's more robust Lotus Notes and "strips it down." Because it's entirely Web-based, administrators don't have to worry about desktop installations. They also benefit from single-entry provisioning of new users in an LDAP directory. Version 1.0 is shipping with e-mail only, though Lotus promises personal calendar capabilities in future releases. The list price for Workplace Messaging is $29 per user, but Lotus said that, with discounts, the three-year average total cost of ownership is $3 per user per month. That's compared with the roughly $10 to $20 monthly charges most organizations pay for all the bells and whistles included in a client-server mailbox, Ferris said.

When evaluating low-end messaging tools, cost is just one factor to consider, according to Osterman. He recommends taking a close look at the functionality offered and determining exactly what your organizations' "deskless" workers need. He also thinks companies should assess security and authentication concerns, as well as the integration capabilities between the low-end offerings and existing, fully functional e-mail systems.

However, Osterman doesn't put extending e-mail capabilities at the top of his spending list for messaging managers. Instead, he thinks most organizations would be wiser to consider investments in enterprise instant messaging or spam control. Overall, Osterman forecasts that roughly 20% to 30% of nontraditional e-mail users will wind up with a company inbox. He predicts that outsourcers -- who can spare e-mail administrators any new messaging headaches -- will eventually become huge suppliers of "deskless" e-mail.

Even Lotus' Caffrey admits that products like Workplace Messaging have the potential to open up a can of workplace worms. Businesses must consider the implications of extending e-mail to a new type of worker. Companies may need to establish and enforce strict messaging policies to prevent unnecessary attachments from clogging corporate bandwidth. Some companies may even want to restrict these new e-mail accounts from receiving external mail.

Plus, delivering e-mail to workers also requires giving them time to check it. Some organizations may be reluctant to pull factory workers off the assembly line so they can log on. Issues like this may ultimately fall into the lap of labor unions.

"Some companies have non-e-mail users for a reason," Osterman said. "Companies don't want to pay these employees to get e-mail."


- Best Web Links: Messaging

- Buyer's Guide category: Mail/messaging utilities

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