Exchange 15: Insights from Exchange Server GM Kevin Allison

At last week's Microsoft Exchange Connections conference in Las Vegas, Exchange General Manager Kevin Allison gave a keynote entitled "Moving Into the Future with Microsoft Exchange." Before moving forward, Allison took time to apologize for and explain the problems the Exchange team had earlier in the year with updates to Exchange 2010. Personally, I think that was a really good move -- something I think doesn't happen enough in our society, let alone from big corporations.

I won't dwell on what Allison covered in his keynote, mostly because Tony Redmond already wrote about it. However, I did have the chance to sit down with Allison afterward and talk a little more in depth about what's going on in the Exchange development process, what we can expect from the product now that the on-premises development is combined with the cloud version of Exchange Online, and also a few hints about what we might see in the next full-release version of Exchange, currently being called Exchange 15.

To start with, Allison highlighted how the development of Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2010 were focused on minimizing cost of deployment over time and about giving end users more control of basic functions so that admins can focus on things such as security and compliance. Exchange 2010, Allison said, "was built around the idea of enabling the admin to move functionality to the end user so that the admin can focus on overall system efficiency and workflow and improvements."

"I think you'll see the same thing relative to 15," Allison went on to say, "which is really a switch from very back-office focused, very admin focused value props. You can give value props to the end users and value props to the admin. For end users, it's about them being able to control their environment, control their communication, control their workspace. For admins, it's providing them policies to manage things globally to allow them to minimize the day-to-day work that they have because it's being implemented in consistent ways; they can deal with the compliance issues; they can take advantage of lower-cost hardware, better deployment methodologies. So those are the focus. I think you'll see that continuing with 15."

Another focus for development comes from the combination of technologies in Microsoft Office 365 and the idea of giving users control of how they interact with their environment. Allison suggested that the future could include "different modalities based on the user's desire. So if they want to use Lync as their primary interface, they want to use SharePoint as their primary interface, they want to use Outlook as their primary interface, or they want to use OneNote, they can do that. And they have the value of those server applications and their efficiencies. I think that's where we're at, right in the middle of that transition. And I think you'll see us continue to expand that transition and connect in other aspects of that experience."

Developing the on-premises and cloud-based Exchange versions in tandem could affect the timing for releases. One of the reasons businesses choose to deploy cloud solutions such as Office 365 is so that they can stay current and have the latest releases as quickly as possible. For Microsoft, this presents a challenge to the traditional development cycle. However, according to Allison, the Exchange team has responded well, and we could potentially see major release versions coming quicker than in the past. "Shipping product in a faster cycle is really, in a lot of ways, a response to the market dynamics changing and innovation being driven from the industry," Allison said.

Naturally, they're still concerned about overall quality of what gets released for Exchange. If there was any doubt, certainly the problems faced with updates earlier this year have ignited a fire in the Exchange team to get things right before releasing them to customers. As Allison said, "Next year is a big release year for Microsoft with all the products coming, and so you'll spend a little bit more time just to make sure that the coexistence issues are there, the right Windows 8 support is there, the right Word and Excel support is there, those types of things."

"It's a really strange dichotomy that in one sense you get a complaint that you're just shipping more product to get revenue, but in the other sense you get accused of not innovating," Allison said. Although he wasn't able at this point to share any specifics of what innovations Exchange 15 would include, I think it's safe to assume we can expect developments that make Exchange easier to run or host in cloud environments. It's no secret Microsoft has been making a major effort to move as many seats to the cloud as possible.

Now, time for some pure speculation -- albeit, based on past history of Microsoft's releases. If the Exchange team follows the pattern of previous releases, I'd expect them to release a public beta for Exchange 15 by mid-year 2012, perhaps as early as April or May, and if all goes well, the final version would be out by the end of next year. As for the final name, for the past couple of releases, they've looked forward and applied the year after the actual release year. So, Exchange Server 2007 was released at the end of 2006, and Exchange Server 2010 came at the end of 2009. My suspicion is they would avoid the bad luck omen of taking that route if they release in 2012, which would lead to Exchange 2013, and might just stick with Exchange Server 2012.

Pure speculation, mind you, but: Exchange 2012. That is, unless they throw us all off with something weird like Exchange Server 8 to go along with Windows Server 8. Or even worse: Exchange Server Vista. Please, no.

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