Microsoft fends off Google with Web browser-friendly Exchange 2010

Company adds archiving, smart end-user features to beta -- plus Outlook Web Access made equal with Outlook client

Microsoft Corp. said it would release a public beta of Exchange Server 2010 on Wednesday, and said the final version of its flagship communications software would be released by year's end.

Improvements to Exchange Server 2007's successor include a built-in e-mail archive and other features for e-mail administrators, as well as innovations aimed at end users that either match Google Inc.'s Gmail or, in some cases, top it.

One thing that will not change: Exchange 2010 will continue to use the Jet database engine to store messages, instead of SQL Server as Microsoft publicly outlined earlier this decade.

Jet has been criticized for not scaling well for companies with many e-mail users or large in-boxes.

Julia White, director of Exchange product management, said that Microsoft had "done a ton of innovation" on Jet for Exchange 2010. "We're optimizing what we've done with Jet to move it to the next level." However, White was unsure if Jet would be used for later versions of Exchange.

Taming the in-box

One new feature Microsoft touts as unique is Ignore Conversation, which allows users to mute e-mail threads to which the user, because of Reply All or Bcc inclusion, is not interested in following.

Another new feature is called MailTips. It warns users before they send an e-mail if a particular recipient is out of the office and unavailable. Or it will warn a user if he is about to send an e-mail to a distribution group that is very large or includes recipients external to the company, which White said could prevent the inadvertent leaking of sensitive company information.

MailTips has the same goal as two recent add-on features in Google's Gmail: MailGoggles, which requires users to do a difficult math problem before sending an e-mail at user-defined hours to prevent post-sending regret, and Undo Send, which holds e-mails for five seconds before sending them.

Other new features in Exchange 2010 include letting users combine related e-mails into a conversation view, pioneered by Gmail's conversation view. It will also provide text previews of voice mails in Outlook, as well as track whether messages arrived with recipients (although users will not be able to see if an e-mail has been read, for privacy reasons).

App and Web are one

For the first time, all of the new features available for the Outlook client will also be available via Outlook Web Access (OWA). "The experience will be consistent," White said.

One caveat: The new full-featured Web access will only be available to users of a premium version of OWA. Exchange 2010 will allow those users to log in via Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer browsers.

But White said Windows Mobile smartphones would not be as lucky. For example, MailTips will not be available on Windows smartphones.

Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing at Exchange management services provider Azaleos Corp., said Microsoft had "done some solid work" with Exchange 2010 from the administrator side. He cited improvements such as better performance for direct-attached storage, so that inexpensive storage was an option, and better disaster recovery capabilities.

Gode said Microsoft's decision to stick with the Jet database was a nonissue because scaling problems had mostly been solved. And he argued that Exchange remained far ahead of Gmail for the enterprise.

"Google is attempting to employ some 'Gmagic' here to have folks believe that their solution is ready for prime time ... it is not," Gode said. "Microsoft is still doing some learning itself in the services space, but if I am an IT Pro, I would much rather bet my company's e-mail uptime and reliability on Microsoft at this stage than on Google."

Archiving's many fixes

White said Microsoft added archiving after discovering that only about a fifth of Exchange users had run third-party archiving software because of difficulty in setting it up.

But archiving has many tricks in its bag. For one, so that e-mails could be "easily discovered" if needed for legal purposes, Exchange administrators would be able to set rules for messages to be automatically transferred to a central archive, White said.

Also, she said automatic archiving would solve the "long-standing pain-point" of users with overflowing e-mail in-boxes who were stuck with offloading older e-mails into personal folders stored on their PCs.

To evaluate the new end-user features of the new Exchange 2010 beta using a client, testers will need to use the Outlook 2010 software beta, which will be made available as a technical preview in the third quarter of the year.

Microsoft said that preview would include SharePoint Server, Visio, Project and Office, which would ship in final form, as previously reported, in the first half of next year.

The company said the related Office software would also get the same 2010 title, replacing the previous "14" code number.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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