After being in the market for five years, Google’s enterprise Gmail is building momentum with commercial organisations with more than 5 000 seats, and it now presents a viable alternative to Microsoft Exchange Online and other cloud e-mail services, according to Gartner.

“The road to its enterprise enlightenment has been long and bumpy, but Gmail should now be considered a mainstream cloud e-mail supplier,” says Matthew Cain, research vice-president at Gartner. “While Gmail’s enterprise e-mail market share currently hovers around 1%, it has close to half of the market for enterprise cloud email. While cloud email is still in its infancy, at 3% to 4% of the overall enterprise email market, we expect it to be a growth industry, reaching 20% of the market by year-end 2016, and 55% by year-end 2020.”

Cain says that, other than Microsoft Exchange, Google Gmail is the only e-mail system that has prospered in the enterprise space over the past several years. Other enterprise e-mail providers – Novell GroupWise and IBM Lotus Notes/Domino – ┬áhave lost market momentum, Cisco closed its cloud email effort and VMware’s Zimbra is only now refocusing on the enterprise space.

Google’s journey to enterprise enlightenment, however, is not complete. Google focuses on capabilities that will have the broadest market uptake. Large organisations with complex email requirements, such as financial institutions, report that Google is resistant to feature requests that would be applicable to only a small segment of its customers. Banks, for example, may require surveillance capabilities that Google is unlikely to build into Gmail given the limited appeal.

While Google is good at taking direction and input on front-end features, it is more resistant to the back-end feature requests that are important to larger enterprises. Large system integrators and organisations report that Google’s lack of transparency in areas such as continuity, security and compliance can thwart deeper relationships.

“E-mail is not a commodity, and cloud e-mail is still maturing,” says Cain. “We believe that, for most organisations, performing one more on-premises upgrade, which will take an organisation through 2014, is the most prudent approach. A less-risky approach to cloud email is via a hybrid deployment, where some mailboxes live in the cloud and some are located on premises. This hybrid model plays to Microsoft’s strengths given its vast dominance of the on-premises email market.

“The intense competition between Microsoft and Google will make both vendors stronger and enable them to apply cloud expertise to other enterprise cloud endeavours,” he adds. “The rivalry will make it difficult for other suppliers to compete directly in the cloud email and collaboration space.”