Google claims that they were the first webmail client based on Ajax; that's not strictly true as Microsoft points out as Outlook Web Access was Ajax-based in Exchange 2003. But we might be quibbling because the real story is how the competition in email between Google and Microsoft since the introduction of Gmail on April 1, 2004 has moved the state of the art so far in such a short time.
Fun and games duly erupted after Google published “The evolution of Gmail” containing the claim that Gmail was “the first webmail to be built on Ajax”. Microsoft responded with tweets to point out that the version of Outlook Web App (or Outlook Web Access as it was known then) shipped in Exchange 2003 also used Ajax and predated Gmail by a year or so. The full story of OWA as written in 2005 is available in an EHLO post.
I think Microsoft is correct to call Google on this point because no doubt exists that Microsoft had worked since 1997 to deliver web clients for Exchange, beginning with the “Exchange Web Client” in Exchange 5.0 and progressing to successfully more functional clients in Exchange 5.5, Exchange 2000, and then Exchange 2003. A big factor in the development story was the adoption of new web technologies such as WebDAV, DHTML, and Ajax.
Development has continued apace since and we have had better clients appearing in Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2010, where the big story is the support for non-IE browsers to a point where you have the same experience using IE, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, something that causes Microsoft executives to reach for the anti-acid any time they see OWA or EAC screen shots that do not feature IE (don’t ask why I know this – I just do). In addition, the work to keep OWA functionally equivalent across all the “prime” browsers requires enormous engineering and testing effort, something that we should not forget when Microsoft is criticized about its support for browser choice.
You will no doubt notice that I have not included OWA 2013 in the description to date. That’s because I am still unconvinced about the brand spanking new and must-be-better user interface that Microsoft has chosen to use. Sure, OWA 2013 includes offline access (another nice example of how the Exchange team uses new browser technology to advance the client) and CU1 has introduced public folder support (but only for the modern variety; ancient public folders are still treated like cockroaches), but I still consider the current OWA 2013 client to be functionality-deficient when compared to its immediate predecessor. I am sure that OWA 2013 will improve over time as cumulative updates unfold and Microsoft gets to close gaps such as lack of S/MIME support or the inability to cut and paste addresses between email address fields. As you can see in the screenshot below, OWA allows you to edit, remove, or view details of an address entered in an OWA message, but you cannot cut and paste between TO:, CC:, and BCC: fields. Weird!
Getting back to the original debate and arguing against myself (always fun), Google’s claim is correct if you include the clause immediately afterwards and read “First webmail to be built on Ajax, with 1GB storage…” The wonders of the English language and the mind of a lawyer might consider this claim to be absolutely accurate because Gmail was indeed the first Ajax-based webmail client to offer such a large mailbox. In fact, setting new standards for mailbox storage and creating a user expectation that they should be able to store everything online (and depend on great search facilities to find items when required) are Google’s real accomplishments with Gmail.
So Microsoft is right that OWA was first to use Ajax (I use both clients on a daily basis and consider OWA to be more functional in many ways than Gmail); Google is right that they were the first to provide users with so much storage; the efforts of both companies have combined to get us to where we are now – with support for huge 100GB mailboxes, great search facilities, and highly effective web email clients available to both on-premises and cloud customers.
We should celebrate nine years of evolution for Gmail and congratulate Google on their achievements because competition is the factor that makes companies reach to create better products and services. Long may competition between Microsoft and Google for the battle for email supremcy exist!
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna