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PHOTO: dylan nolte

The headline in the local German press read, "The German Attack on WhatsApp.” German entrepreneur Rafael Laguna is looking to counter the dominance of Facebook's messaging services WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. But Facebook isn't the only one on Laguna‘s radar. He could even be looking to cut into the popularity of business solutions like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

It sounds like an ambitious plan, especially when considering WhatsApp's continued dominance in the private market. Alternatives like open source-based Signal and Swiss alternative Threema are still far from the user numbers of the Zuckerberg messengers. Ten years after release, and long after the founders' visions went down the drain, WhatsApp rules the market.

Meanwhile in the business sector, Microsoft is going after Slack, which just announced it has more than 8 million active users. Other vendors, such as IBM with Watson Workspace, either gave up or sold their solutions, like Atlassian. 

True, not all companies have given up: Threema Work just became the official messenger for the Swiss government and open source alternative Mattermost chat service has brought on some big names as customers, due to its highly customizable and modifiable solution.

Related Article: 6 Ways Real-Time Chat Apps Fail for Organizations

Expanding IMAP to Handle Chat

So why does Rafael Laguna think he has a chance to take on this kind of competition? 

Laguna's plan is to drill into the internet message access protocol (IMAP) in such a way that it could also be used to handle chats. Laguna is CEO of the company Open-Xchange, whose software "Dovecot" is used by many large providers, including German Telekom and others. If an email provider uses IMAP as protocol, there's a good chance Dovecot is the basis. The company estimates roughly three quarters of all IMAP servers run on Dovecot, worldwide.

Laguna wants to add "Chat Over IMAP" to this protocol in such a way that chat services such as WhatsApp, but also business solutions like Slack could be operated via it. It's a high goal: The solution should be open source and wouldn't involve reviewing user data. Above all, the solution could run with all providers who participated, meaning interoperability between solutions based on Chat over IMAP. Furthermore, this means the data would not be collected by just one provider.

Despite all concerns and the competitive market, Laguna has been quoted as saying, "We'll just do it now." While the plan seems farfetched, it has a higher chance of success if only because IMAP is a de-facto standard for exchanging email in the market going beyond the SMTP protocol. Laguna is betting on that, but he will definitely need some big players or even the German government — look at the Threema example in Switzerland — committing to the protocol to gain traction.

Related Article: Why Email Still Lingers in the Collaboration Tool Mix

Does Chat Over IMAP Stand a Chance?

I'm on the fence. On the one hand I have a lot of sympathy for an open source-based approach using a standard protocol. Will we finally live outside the email inbox, an approach my highly esteemed former colleague Luis Suarez has been a proponent of for years? How many articles have been written about a life with less email and about the tools that are better suited for collaborating? Just recently Laurence Hart covered the topic again here on CMSWire.

In real life we do not live outside the inbox. We just have more inboxes to check and work with: email, business messengers like Slack or Teams, private messengers like WhatsApp, notifications from enterprise social networks like Jive or IBM Connections, mail in business networks like LinkedIn and add to that more and more video chats and conferences via the Webex‘s of this world. I have yet to see a "universal inbox" or one communication and collaboration workspace integrating these channels in one interface.

HCL, which recently bought the collaboration products Notes/Domino and Connections from IBM, presented a look-alike prototype called HCL Places which consolidates email, messaging, video and document sharing and editing in one clean interface based on the Domino-backend. One easy to use, central place to work from — I have heard this request from so many business users who work with five or six different products and interfaces, never knowing which channel or tool is the right one to use.

Perhaps a provider will succeed in building solutions based on standards like IMAP and Chat over IMAP, which will allow us to intelligently map communication, sharing and collaboration. In a hybrid and multi-cloud world, where enterprises and individual users are more and more sensitive about data privacy, security and protection, it is definitely time to move beyond proprietary software and dependance on one vendor. Forward thinkers like Laguna and others fighting for open standards could possibly be laying the foundation for this path.