The surprisingly strong business case for CIOs to try Amazon WorkMail

At this point, I’m half-expecting Amazon to introduce its own word processor too.

The world’s biggest online merchant — and major public cloud provider — surprised the industry on Wednesday by announcing it would be introducing Amazon WorkMail, an e-mail service aimed at business customers that will compete with Google’s Gmail and, of course, Microsoft and Exchange. Amazon said it will charge $4 per employee for Amazon WorkMail and will allow customers to access it via Microsoft Outlook or similar clients. The e-mail will be encrypted and will come with a calendaring service that will be marketed with a 30-day trial period.

“Paradoxically, email is both mission-critical and pedestrian. Everyone needs it to work, but hardly anyone truly understands what it takes to make this happen!” wrote Amazon Web Services chief evangelist Jeff Barr in a blog post that was heavy on exclamation points. “Have you ever had to set up, run, and scale an email server? While it has been a long time since I have done this on my own, I do know that it is a lot of work! Users expect to be able to access their email from the application, device, or browser of their choice. They want to be able to send and receive large files (multi-megabyte video attachments and presentations often find their way in to my inbox).

If Amazon had tried this a few years ago, I think they would have been laughed out or any CIO’s office. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, there are a few reasons why I could even foresee WorkMail becoming part of certain digital transformation strategies in 2015:

You’ve got Gmail!: It’s taken years, but the Google paved the way for organizations making the big leap from Microsoft Exchange and all the associated costs and complexity. In Canada, this seemed to manifest itself initially in postsecondary institutions, but it has since migrated into many other sectors (including publishing: ITWC is a corporate Gmail client). Gmail has proven that there is still room for alternatives in this area. Amazon WorkMail will probably focus less on Microsoft’s installed base initially but perhaps attempt to out-Google Google instead.

The AWS effect: Amazon’s bona fides as a public cloud provider are absolutely airtight. This is a company that helped pioneer the notion of offering compute resources on-demand. Although e-mail might seem like a commodity business that wouldn’t interest a company of Amazon’s breadth, it would also be seen as a way of completing Amazon’s software “stack,” which also includes productivity tools like WorkDocs (formerly, and bizarrely, Amazon Zocalo), which could be seen as its answer to DropBox, Google Drive and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft SharePoint.

The confident cloud: When Google first started peddling Gmail and Microsoft launched Office 365, a lot of the loudest conversation points were around the ease-of-use provided from a familiar interface, convenience of online access to messages and so on. In this case, Amazon is emphasizing security in a big way, including message scanning and S/MIME encryption. Perhaps more interesting is what it calls location control: the ability to store e-mail data within a specific region. Suddenly a whole host of Canadian CIOs’ concerns have been addressed. A feature to extend security policies around e-mail to specific mobile device interactions reflects that messages go on a journey that can turn riskier as moves from a desktop to a smartphone and back again. If Amazon can make the enterprise feel safer about e-mail, it will only further its position as a trusted provider of other cloud-based services.

All of this will no doubt keep Amazon busy for the next while, but if I were a CIO I’d be interested in hearing more about its roadmap for enhancing digital communications. Will Amazon think beyond e-mail and create a unified communications offering to compete with the likes of Microsoft Lync (now known as Skype for Business)? Maybe it could start with a simple instant messaging client. Or, given how much activity it gets from consumers via its e-commerce service, could Amazon provide a communications environment that effectively blends personal and professional use in a safe manner?

If nothing else, Amazon just demonstrated it’s possible to innovate in what should properly be considered “unsexy” tech products. Now if it could just find a way to stop certain people at work from hitting “reply all” all the time . . .

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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