Microsoft boosts Office 365 Plan K capabilities

Many reports have emerged recently to say that Microsoft will soon offer more capabilities to users of its Office 365 Plan K, which is the lowest-cost priced plan sold to “kiosk” (hence K) users who are happy to restrict themselves to the Outlook Web App (OWA) client. Of course, some of these folk might not be too happy to be restricted as they’d much prefer to use Plan P or Plan E but their companies won’t pay the extra.

In any case, the new capabilities are pretty straightforward and are all associated with Exchange Online. First, the mailbox quota is increased from 250MB to 500MB. This is a useful increase but I can’t imagine that it will make too many users ecstatic. Second, administrators will now be allowed to purchase (for an extra cost) Exchange archiving capabilities for Plan K users. In effect, as well as being allowed to use an archive mailbox, this means that Plan K users can now be brought under the control of litigation hold should the need arise. However, given that the vast majority of Plan K users are unlikely to generate or receive messages that might be of interest to corporate litigators, I think that this capability will not be of general interest. In addition, Microsoft hasn't yet indicated how much they plan to charge to allow a Plan K user to have an archive mailbox.

What’s far more interesting because it is of immediate and obvious use is the decision to allow Plan K users to use ActiveSync. Up to now Plan K has been restricted to POP3 access for mobile devices. POP3 is sufficient to allow devices to download messages (SMTP access is required to send new mail) but it is terribly limited in terms of the features that people expect to use with modern mobile devices such as iPhone, Windows Phone, or Android. The fact that POP3 is a form of lowest common denominator for email access shouldn’t come as a surprise because the protocol was defined in RFC1939 as long ago as May 1996, roughly the same time as Microsoft  made the jump from workgroup email systems by shipping Exchange 4.0 as a replacement for Microsoft Mail. Obviously a huge amount of progress has occurred in email technology since 1996 and POP3 is now a historical (but still useful) artefact of email’s past.

ActiveSync has been around a long time too. First introduced as a desktop synchronization protocol that forced users to put mobile devices into cradles to synchronize email via a PC, its popularity accelerated when Microsoft introduced server-based ActiveSync as part of Exchange 2003 SP2 in October 2005 when Microsoft boasted of a “new seamless Direct Push Technology email experience” (that’s some marketing mouthful). Server-based ActiveSync offered free connectivity for mobile devices and was a huge advance at a time when RIM was the undoubted (but expensive) king for mobile email. Every version of Exchange since has improved and refined ActiveSync to make it more effective and efficient. Technology advance coupled with an aggressive licensing campaign that has seen every major mobile device vendor sign up to support ActiveSync has made the protocol the de facto standard for mobile email. It’s this reason why ActiveSync support is such an important and useful addition to Plan K capabilities.

ActiveSync isn’t perfect as its implementation varies from vendor to vendor. Everyone supports the basic features to allow connectivity for email, calendar, and contacts but some don’t do such a good job when it comes to features in which administrators are interested such as remote wipe for lost devices. Microsoft launched a logo compliance program in April 2011 in an attempt to convince vendors to support at least a minimum set of features and I’ve seen some improvement across devices since. In any case, even a bare-bones implementation of ActiveSync is so much better than POP3.

Plan K hasn’t been updated yet. This will happen as part of Microsoft’s regular upgrading of software within their Office 365 environment and is expected in the March timeframe. For now Plan K users can think about how to use the extra 250MB quota but dream about the new mobile devices that they might be able to use effectively once the update is rolled out.

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