Southwest Airlines wanted to give e-mail accounts to each of its pilots, flight attendants and ground-crew workers\u2014critical employees who needed to be in the corporate loop but didn\u2019t even have computers. The problem: It would have been prohibitively expensive to give all 30,000 of them accounts on the corporate mail system, Novell GroupWise. It wasn\u2019t just the license fees. Shannon Kessner, manager of Intel core services at Southwest, says that the company would have needed to buy\u2014and manage\u2014at least 30 new servers.Instead, Southwest chose a more lightweight e-mail system, Novell\u2019s NetMail. In early 2002, the company provided e-mail accounts to all 30,000 "deskless" employees using a fault-tolerant array of just three servers. Those employees check their mail using Web browsers, usually from home or from PCs installed in airport terminals. Meanwhile, the 8,000 corporate employees with desks still use GroupWise, which includes the collaborative features that they need. Southwest saves money on software licensing: Fees for NetMail are typically $12 to $15 per user, says Novell, compared with about $70 per user for GroupWise. And the airline also saves on administration costs because the new system is simple, stable and requires little maintenance. "We\u2019ve had very few problems with it at all," says Kessner.Like Southwest, many companies are discovering that corporate e-mail systems don\u2019t have to be expensive to be effective. In many cases, simple, stripped-down mail servers fit the bill quite nicely. But that doesn\u2019t mean you should rip out your Exchange or Domino servers tomorrow.Expensive E-MailMicrosoft Exchange and IBM Domino\/Notes dominate the corporate e-mail world. Together, the packages own nearly 90 percent of the Global 2000 e-mail market, and that dominance will continue through 2007, according to Meta Group. However, these products are expensive. Mix in costs for maintenance, administration, upgrades, training and downtime, and the average cost of providing e-mail during a three-year period tops $18.45 per user per month for Exchange and $12.55 for Domino, according to The Radicati Group, a consulting and market research company. Add in the platforms and network infrastructure required to run these systems, and the fully loaded, monthly per-user cost soars to $36.56 for Exchange and $33.88 for Domino.Fortunately, fully functioning corporate e-mail systems can be had for far less. According to Radicati, Oracle Collaboration Suite averages $5.40 per user per month ($16.25 including the infrastructure costs) and Sun One Messaging Server costs $8.04 ($17.80 including infrastructure).If you\u2019re willing to forego the more advanced features offered by those high-end products, the cost drops to the floor. Sendmail recently announced a partnership with Hewlett-Packard and Intel to provide corporate e-mail (called Workforce Mail) for a total cost of $1 to $2 per user per month, while IBM claims that its new, low-cost Lotus Workplace Messaging can do the same for less than $1.Switching CostsSo why would anyone pay high prices when they could deliver e-mail for one-sixth to one-tenth the cost of Exchange?One reason is that corporate knowledge workers\u2014those whose job it is to discover, create and manage information\u2014actually do use the more complicated collaborative features (document sharing, scheduling and the like) built into Notes and Exchange. In some cases, the low-cost systems lack basic features, such as spellcheckers and mail-filtering rules. And you can\u2019t switch from a full-featured e-mail system to a less capable one without angering at least some end users. "Once you\u2019ve convinced people to use a fork, you don\u2019t want to take that away and convince them to use a spoon," says Mark Levitt, research vice president for collaborative computing at IDC (a sister company to CIO\u2019s publisher).What\u2019s more, everything you\u2019ve already spent on e-mail to date is a sunk cost. You\u2019re not getting that money back, even if you switch. "Although commodity e-mail systems may look cheap on paper, the ongoing maintenance of your existing e-mail system may not be as expensive as switching," says Matt Cain, senior vice president at Meta Group. Finally, switching e-mail platforms requires your IT staff to install and support a new system (a major retraining headache) and to migrate user accounts and data.The bottom line? "I don\u2019t think there is such a thing as cheap e-mail, particularly if it\u2019s got the capabilities everybody wants," says Robert Moon, CIO and vice president of information services for ViewSonic, whose e-mail system is based on Oracle Collaboration Suite.Lower Cost of OwnershipCommodity e-mail systems do, however, offer some powerful advantages that lend themselves to situations where basic e-mail is all you need\u2014such as providing e-mail to deskless workers or to users who are not computer savvy.First and foremost is the lower cost of ownership. Commodity mail systems are based on robust, standard, open Internet mail protocols, such as SMTP, POP3 and IMAP. They run on standard hardware and may use the same back-end data stores as the rest of your enterprise. They can deliver e-mail to end users via Web interfaces (much like Hotmail or Yahoo mail), to standard POP clients such as Eudora or in some cases even to Microsoft Outlook, all of which may simplify client maintenance headaches.Lotus Workplace Messaging, for example, uses industry-standard J2EE code running on IBM\u2019s WebSphere, stores its data in a DB2 database and delivers mail via webpages. If you\u2019re already running those systems for, say, your Web applications, you can get significant economies of scale by running e-mail on the same platform. (By contrast, Domino uses a proprietary data store, has its own programming language, and generally requires the bulky and idiosyncratic Notes client.)Keep It SimpleWhen your mail system is based on a standard platform, maintenance is simpler because your IT staff can apply skills it has already learned in managing other IT resources. That\u2019s one reason Jim Bobo, systems administrator and chief programmer at Courtesy Insurance Agency, switched his company\u2019s 100 users from Exchange to Stalker Software\u2019s CommuniGate Pro. "You don\u2019t have to have a degree in Microsoftese to use the thing," says Bobo.Beyond cost, some companies are finding that fewer features can actually be beneficial to the end users. For instance, ManuLife Financial, a Canadian financial services company with extensive business in Asia, used Lotus Workplace Messaging to deliver Web-based e-mail to 3,600 independent insurance agents in Japan. Because most of those agents are not computer savvy, the company wanted an easy-to-use solution. "A high degree of functionality would be a bad thing because you\u2019ve got novices who have never used a computer before," says Rob Salerno, a partner at MetaLogic Consulting, which installed the Lotus system. "You need something that has an easy-to-use interface and performs well."Others agree. For many workers who don\u2019t use PCs every day\u2014factory workers, retail employees and the like\u2014simpler is better. "Low maintenance and low total cost of ownership make a lot of sense for those workers who don\u2019t need a lot of high-end features," says Dana Gardner, a senior analyst for The Yankee Group.A Mature MarketSuch employees\u2014about one-third of the corporate workforce, according to estimates by Radicati and Ferris Research\u2014are a tempting market for e-mail vendors. With the rest of the corporate world already sewn up by IBM and Microsoft, vendors are looking for growth where they can get it. Therefore, the recent push toward low-cost mail solutions may be driven more by vendors\u2019 marketing desires than it is by customer needs.There\u2019s also an underlying technical reason for vendors to push standards-based e-mail. Putting e-mail servers on a common foundation gets vendors in line with the overall industry trend toward open Internet standards. "The business design we have, which is based on industry standards, leverages the industry\u2019s investment, which is why we can get the licensing costs down," says Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBM\u2019s Lotus Software. In other words: With millions of developers working on Java applications, IBM doesn\u2019t have to devote its own resources to building a robust platform from scratch. IBM\u2019s goal is to have all of its messaging and collaboration products migrate to an open platform over time, says Goyal, while preserving support for current Notes clients.Naturally, Microsoft isn\u2019t taking this threat lying down. The new Exchange Server 2003 includes a per-device licensing option that makes it more economical for companies that want to provide kiosk-based Web access to large numbers of deskless workers. Instead of paying for each user, companies can pay a license fee for each device, with an unlimited number of users. And Microsoft has announced plans to move Exchange toward a SQL-based data store, although that is probably several years from fruition.How to Save MoneyIn addition to deskless workers in large corporations, commodity mail vendors may find some traction among small and midsize businesses, where the allure of added features may not be enough to overcome high costs. While commodity mail is not going to unseat Exchange and Domino from their thrones, says Yankee Group\u2019s Gardner, it may contribute to a gradual erosion of their market share over time.In the short term, however, most companies are moving cautiously. "I want to pick a platform that\u2019s going to be around for a long time," says Len Pagon, president and CEO of technology consultancy Brulant. Salerno agrees: "A lot of companies are playing wait and see\u2014they\u2019re waiting for a success story.""Commodity mail is nothing new. It\u2019s been out there for the past decade, and it has yet to take hold in corporate America," says Meta\u2019s Cain. Instead of switching mail systems, Cain recommends looking for ways of reducing costs in your existing mail setup: Consolidating servers, centralizing and managing storage more effectively, and adding Web mail access to eliminate client maintenance and training headaches.Still, if you\u2019re adding large numbers of new users to your e-mail system, if you\u2019re expanding your mail system to groups of employees that haven\u2019t had mail accounts, or if you\u2019re a small company with a tight IT budget, you should take a look at low-cost mail alternatives. If nothing else, those systems are providing IBM and Microsoft with some much-needed competition. And they just might deliver what you need at a fraction of the cost.