What Microsoft’s Yahoo bid means for Mac IT

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, with no Internet connection, and no contact with anyone who has one, you know about Microsoft’s desire to buy Yahoo (and Yahoo’s subsequent rejection of Microsoft’s offer). I’m not going to hash out the financial implications of a Microsoft-Yahoo union, as that’s well-trod territory these days. What I am going to do is take a look at the possible IT implications, if Microsoft is successful in its attempt to buy Yahoo (and the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant was hinting at mounting a hostile takeover on Monday).

For IT, there’s much this that is of little, or incidental importance. Yahoo’s IM, WebMail, web portal, and most of its other public services don’t really factor into IT. In truth, we spend a lot of time dealing with how to keep people from using things like Yahoo Mail and its chat programs in the workplace—not so much from a desire for power, but because there are regulatory issues that crop up with such things. It’s not just Yahoo; Google Talk, AIM, Microsoft Messenger, and all the free webmail services get treated about the same.

However, there are some Yahoo products and services that Mac IT administrators can use or are using, and the potential fate of those should be of great interest to those administrators.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite

Of all the Yahoo products that would not do well under Microsoft ownership, the recently acquired Zimbra Collaboration Suite is at the top of the list. Zimbra is both an open-source and commercial groupware product that provides the same kinds of services that Exchange, Groupwise, Notes/Domino, Mac OS X 10.5 Server, Kerio, and others provide. However, while Zimbra is similar to Exchange it has some critical differences that would prove fatal under Microsoft control. First, it’s not really a Windows product. In fact, if you look at the download pages for the Open Source and Network Editions, there’s not a Windows version of Zimbra to be found. Not having a Windows version of your product is not the way to long life and happiness at Microsoft.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Zimbra’s a direct competitor for Exchange. It even has a MAPI connector for Outlook. (For Mac users, there’s an iSync/Sync Services connector.) Zimbra also has a fat desktop client in beta, and have long had one of the best Web implementations in the business. In truth, the Web client is Zimbra’s primary client, and unlike Exchange, there’s no “crippled” version for people not running IE on Windows.

A product that’s a direct competitor for one of Microsoft’s biggest cash cows, and doesn’t show any real preference to Outlook or IE? Yep, that’s an Old Yeller end coming up. All that’s missing is Pa walking ‘round back with a sad look and a shotgun.

True, there is an Open Source version, and Microsoft can’t do much about that, but that’s not the panacea that some folks might think it is. If nothing else, the Open Source Edition is missing quite a few features that would be important in a business environment, such as the MAPI/iSync clients, the Exchange OTA connector, the Blackberry connector, Domain-level administration, clustering/HA, online backup/restore, and storage management. In the modern business environment, particularly a multi-platform one, the loss of those features can easily be a deal-breaker for the Zimbra Open Source Edition. However, even if those features were in the Open Source edition, there are other problems.

If Microsoft is going to take out the commercial versions, there’s nothing keeping it from killing all Zimbra work on the Open Source Edition, and deleting the source code that Zimbra has. True, the downloaded versions would be out there, but without the Zimbra engineers who truly know the code, getting new features or fixes would be spotty at best. Even if the entire Zimbra engineering team resigned en masse, there’s still the specter of non-compete agreements, which could prevent them from working, at least temporarily, on things that directly compete with Microsoft products, like, oh… Zimbra. However, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the entire Zimbra engineering team won’t resign, which means some of their expertise is permanently lost to the Zimbra community.

Even without dire future predictions, I’ll bet that the Microsoft buyout attempt is hurting Zimbra now. What IT administrator in their right mind would recommend a business-critical product with a good chance of being dead and gone by the end of the year? That is not the way to a long and prosperous career. Zimbra’s future is not one that encourages new customers.

It’s not just Zimbra that’s in danger. There’s also the real threat to Yahoo’s developer resources. For anyone doing Web-based applications, Cold Fusion, Flash, and so forth, is a great resource. Its Javascript developer center and some of the libraries available therein, such as the Yahoo User Interface Library, or YUI, are considered one of the better Ajax/Javascript libraries around. (When Dori Smith says, in the latest edition of her Javascript & Ajax book that “We think it’s one of the best”, I pay attention, as Dori is one of the people I turn to most with Javascript questions.)

But it’s not just Javascript. has areas for almost any language or environment you’re going to use on the Web. Looking at them, it’s easy to see what Microsoft would do with them: Java? Gone, use .Net. JavaScript? Subsumed into whatever Microsoft is calling their versions of Javascript and Ajax. Flash? Gone, use Silverlight and .Net. ColdFusion? Gone, use .Net. .Net? Subsumed into the Microsoft .Net resources. PHP? Maybe minor support in the periodic Microsoft “we don’t really hate open source” spasms, but the major message would be “use .Net”. Python? See PHP. Ruby? See Python.

It’s not that Microsoft wouldn’t want to gain all the developers using, but it’s not going to want them using technologies that directly, or even obliquely compete with Microsoft technologies, at least not for long. Microsoft’s answer here would be what it always is for the Web: Visual Studio, .Net, ActiveX and Silverlight, with just enough Javascript to make it work in browsers that aren’t Internet Explorer. Now, if you aren’t using Yahoo developer resources, or Zimbra, then you’re not directly affected, but chances are, you use stuff that is going to be affected by this, should Microsoft succeed in acquiring Yahoo.

Obviously, I’ve not covered everything Yahoo does, provides, or owns that is of use to IT administrators, Mac-based or otherwise, but these two issues strike me as the largest. In spite of Yahoo’s rather…interesting business tactics the last few years, and the shadow that Google has cast, the truth is, Yahoo was, and is a great resource for many people in the IT field, and much of that is threatened by the Microsoft buyout attempt.

Is there anything anyone can do about it? Well, unless you have $40 or $50 billion just laying around, or you are a major Microsoft shareholder, no. But it behooves any IT administrator to keep tabs on this beyond the advertising/webmail issues that are getting most of the press right now. If you are using Yahoo resources or Zimbra, as depressing as it sounds, it would be a very good idea to start making contingency plans as to their replacement.

[John C. Welch is a Unix/Open Systems Administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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