One of the interesting things about technology is how often people put it to uses that the inventors or designers didn't necessarily intend. For example, Philo Farnsworth, who invented a lot of the first commercially viable TV system, was a devout Mormon who probably would be appalled by much of what's broadcast today. In the same vein, I sometimes wonder what the Exchange team thinks of the ingenious uses that smart developers have made of the interfaces to Exchange data.
A new product called Nexchange from a small Alabama company called Nextworks got me thinking about this. Nexchange takes advantage of Exchange Server 2003 and Exchange 2000 Server's support for WWW Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) to provide wireless synchronization of calendar, contact, notes, and task data to a wireless Palm PDA, such as palmOne's Treo 600, or a smart phone, such as the Kyocera 7135.
This is an interesting approach for several reasons. First, Nexchange doesn't require any server-side configuration, so end users can take advantage of it even if their IT departments don't want to, or can't, deploy wireless device access with Exchange ActiveSync. Second, it supports popular devices that don't support Exchange ActiveSync and never will, meaning that users of these devices can get wireless access to their Exchange data without installing anything on their desktops. Will this dethrone Research in Motion (RIM) and BlackBerry devices? Probably not, but what if Nextworks ports its sync engine to other devices so you can get full access to your data without desktop or server changes? Could be interesting.
Of course, WebDAV isn't the first interface that Microsoft has shipped for Exchange; it follows Messaging API (MAPI), which is familiar to those of us who use Outlook. However, using MAPI and WebDAV requires a fair amount of development work; neither interface can be described as easy to use. Microsoft's announcement earlier this year that the company will support Web services in Exchange 12 (see the URL below) has the potential to greatly lower the barriers for developing applications that create and consume data in the Exchange Store. In fact, I'm already seeing a great upwelling of interest in Microsoft .NET-based Web services for users who want to get their business-critical data out of IBM Lotus Notes applications and into other systems.
It's far too early to tell what impact Web services will have on Exchange development and administration because we don't know what degree of support Exchange 12 will include. Perhaps we'll find out more at Microsoft TechEd 2005. In the meantime, I encourage you to start thinking about the kinds of applications and capabilities you'd like to implement on top of Exchange if developing Exchange applications were easier. Let me know, and in a future column I'll discuss the best ideas.