If you're like a lot of people, you probably think your e-mail service is just fine, thank you very much. But last month, a small San Mateo...

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If you’re like a lot of people, you probably think your e-mail service is just fine, thank you very much.

But last month, a small San Mateo, Calif., startup called Zimbra launched a new e-mail platform with gee-whiz features — and at a price low enough that it could steal some customers.

Zimbra elicited oohs and aahs from an audience of technologists at a San Francisco conference last month when its e-mail novelties were first unveiled. The excitement stems from Zimbra’s visual fireworks, based on the latest Web technology.

This lets you do things like pull up Google maps by scrolling your mouse over an address written in the e-mail. It allows you to retrieve your calendar when you mouse over a date in an e-mail, or a day of the week — avoiding the need to clunkily switch back and forth from your e-mail and your calendar.

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Zimbra is built using open-source software, which means developers for other companies can access its software code and customize the e-mail technology with their options.

All kinds of features have already sprouted: You “mouse” over a phone number, and your Skype account will pop open for you to make a free Internet call. Or mouse over a purchase order number, and Zimbra will summarize its information.

Zimbra’s product is compatible with Microsoft Outlook and other popular e-mail platforms, such as Apple Mail. Zimbra really runs the bulk of the e-mail service, making it a competitor to Microsoft’s e-mail server offering, called Exchange. But Zimbra keeps the familiar “front-end” part of Microsoft’s e-mail platform, with which users interact, called Outlook.

But while Zimbra says e-mail is “broken,” many companies may still think it works well enough for them. Zimbra has some good-looking technology, but the trick will be in winning converts.

Zimbra also will have to prove it has a security component that works well enough for big companies, too.

String of failures

A string of companies have so far failed to improve upon Microsoft. Ximian had an open-source e-mail product that could connect with Exchange servers, and was popular with some open-source fans, but didn’t take off in a big way.

There is Scalix, which was launched with great fanfare two years ago, but has also not made great headway. There is Mitch Kapor’s Chandler project, which has also failed to see widespread adoption.

Zimbra hopes to wage a grass-roots campaign: winning individual converts, some within big companies, who then spread the word to corporate information-technology officers, persuading them to adopt Zimbra, too.

Zimbra’s product is a test version, but it hopes to release a version ready for big companies within a few months, says Chief Executive Satish Dharmaraj. It wants to undercut Microsoft, which can charge up to $150 per user for companies that want all the bells and whistles — from support to security and more.

But Zimbra is offering its product for $30 per user.

Dharmaraj started the company in late 2003, along with co-founders Ross Dargahi and Roland Schemers. He then worked on Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer at BEA Systems, to join the team. Dietzen hedged for a while, but finally joined this year.

The service was released early last month, and within four weeks, the code has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Russian and Dutch.

The company raised $16 million from Benchmark Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Accel Partners and individuals including Eric Hahn, who launched Outlook-search company Lookout Software.