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Exchange Mobility for the Frugal

As I write this, I'm sitting in the back of a Delta 757 en route to Redmond; from there, I go back home, then prepare for a family trip to Louisiana. Later in the summer we're all going to South Dakota for the (in)famous Sturgis motorcycle rally. What does all this have to do with Exchange? In a word--mobility. I've been thinking a lot about how to squeeze better mobility support out of the messaging environments I manage without breaking the bank doing so.

A lot of you are probably limbering up your fingers to email me to suggest that I get a BlackBerry or other portable device. But my partners and I are allergic to spending the money that's required to buy the server-side software that these solutions require. That means that if I want improved mobility, I have to do it on the cheap.

First, let's start with the old school--Outlook Web Access (OWA)-- my preferred client when I want to quickly scan my mailbox and take speedy action on new messages that require my attention. The current breathless exclamations over Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) applications have masked the fact that the Exchange 2000 version of OWA was pretty much the first mass-market AJAX application. OWA 2003 uses the same techniques with some improvements, and Microsoft has committed to deliver further enhancement (and an even more Outlook-like experience) in the Exchange 12 version of OWA. Deploying OWA is straightforward because it's built into Exchange. You can disable it for individual users or groups of users, and you can tailor various configuration settings to your security requirements, bandwidth capabilities, and user population.

Next is the combination of Outlook Mobile Access (OMA) and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). These solutions are distinctly different; OMA offers quick online-only access to items in your Inbox and Calendar, whereas EAS delivers data items to an EAS-capable handheld device, where they're stored. One big benefit of this combination approach is the breadth of devices supported. More than 60 cell phones and PDA models support OMA, and EAS is built into Windows Mobile and has been licensed for use by Motorola, Nokia, PalmOne, and Symbian. Another important benefit: OMA and EAS are both included with Exchange Server 2003, so you can quickly deploy them at no additional expense (while still maintaining control over whether individual users or groups can use the mobility features). EAS also implements a method for delivering new messages directly to the device--Always-up-to-date (AUTD). (Sami Khoury of the Exchange development team posted a fascinating article about the design goals for AUTD; see Note that I'm ignoring IMAP and POP-based solutions; although Exchange continues to support them, they offer relatively little capability compared with the other alternatives. No one gets excited about IMAP-based mobile device email.

Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), expected later this year, delivers a new synchronization system known as Direct Push Technology that uses standard TCP/IP connections to keep the mobile device up-to-date. It also offers some significant improvements in device security, including remote-device lockout and wipe capabilities (see Patrick Tousignant's post on the Exchange team blog at for more information about these features). The BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) product has had these capabilities for a while, and their absence has hampered enterprise deployment of Exchange's mobility features. I'm looking forward to seeing what impact the combination of Direct Push and the new security features have on the adoption rate of Exchange 2003 SP2 and the deployment rate of Windows Mobile 5.0 devices.

Did you notice that I haven't mentioned Outlook? It's still the premium client, with the richest feature set in Microsoft's client lineup. The addition of tools such as Maestro (the business-reporting development kit that Microsoft released at Microsoft TechEd 2005) and MSN Desktop Search and the continuing popularity of third-party add-ons such as the NewsGator Really Simple Syndication (RSS) reader have made Outlook the first choice for users who might otherwise be willing only to stick with OWA or a mobile device solution. I fall into this category; although I use EAS and OWA heavily when it isn't convenient to fire up Outlook, I still spend most of my time in Outlook.

Microsoft's announcement of new mobility and unified messaging features in Exchange 12 muddies the waters a bit because it's too early to tell what form these features will take or what capabilities they'll offer. However, the promise of something better is just that--a promise--and you can get useful mobility capabilities today from Exchange 2003. I'd like to hear about your experiences with Exchange's mobility features, particularly which areas need improvement before Exchange 12 ships. Drop me a line, and let me know what you think.

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