Microsoft Exchange Conference 2014 finishes on a high

Thursday dawns and we're all on our way home from the Microsoft Exchange Conference in Austin. I enjoyed this conference immensely. Great sessions, great people, great tweets, and great information. I wasn't so impressed about the conference food and the luke-warm coffee but those were small factors when put against setting out the major developments that we can expect in the world of Exchange between now and the end of 2014 and maybe into 2015. Roll on the next MEC!

The Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin came to its natural end on Wednesday evening when sessions halted at 6PM. Some technical conferences go on a little too long and become an endurance course. I don’t think this happened at MEC because three days seemed to be the right length for attendees to be updated on the latest developments in the world of Exchange.

So what did we learn and what should we be prepared for over the next year or so? The keynote laid it out on Monday and a number of sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday hammered the point home that the combination of Outlook Web App (OWA) and Exchange Online (Office 365) is where most of the action will happen through the end of 2014. By that time service tenants should see lots of new and interesting features to play with in Microsoft’s attempt to embrace social networking and remain kings of productivity. As an Office 365 user, I firmly expect to be using the clutter feature to help manage my Inbox and Groups to help focus the Inbox on people who are important to me. We’ll see.

On the on-premises side, I fear that it will be steady as it goes with the regular quarterly cumulative updates for Exchange 2013 until Microsoft cranks up its focus on Exchange 2016, the next major release due at the end of 2015 (October is my bet). Exchange 2016 should gather up all the features previously available to Office 365 users and bring them to on-premises. By that time the bugs and any early teething problems in features like the Enterprise Graph should be sorted and ready to enter the more difficult deployment arena of on-premises servers.

There’s lots of work to be done before Exchange 2016 even enters the planning horizon for most customers. Exchange 2013 CU5 is on its way and should contain the normal mix of fixes and improvements, including the ability for MAPI over HTTP to deal with legacy public folders. MAPI over HTTP is also the key for providing Outlook with dual-factor authentication capabilities.

Speaking of Outlook, it has long been the feature king but its lead is now threatened by the ability of Microsoft to introduce features like clutter to OWA much more quickly than they can for Outlook. It’s easy to understand why this might be. The UI of OWA is totally under Microsoft’s control, especially when connected to Office 365, and they can introduce new features very quickly by introducing new web components into the service. On the other hand, any change to Outlook’s UI that’s necessary to support a new feature has to be carefully planned and incorporated into the build process that creates, tests, and ships new software for deployment by end users. It’s a more complex and extended process. This doesn’t mean that Outlook won’t get the UI necessary to work with new features; it does mean that you’ll have to wait a little longer than for OWA.

In addition to accumulating new features more quickly, OWA is now the king of the mobile castle as it is obvious that Microsoft considers it to be the premier client for mobile devices. Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) has been relegated to the “reach” protocol that runs on a wide number of clients. However, EAS clients will be restricted to the features supported by the protocol now, which means that it’s the standard email, calendaring, contacts, and tasks processing without going near any of the new “cool” (“awesome” was the preferred description from many Microsoft speakers) features that will show up in OWA. And of course, OWA for Android was announced this week, a development made possible by the KitKat release, where OWA leverages the fact that Chrome is now the default browser in Android and provides a web view control that’s important to OWA.

It’s unsurprising that EAS is now being sidelined (I discussed the reasons why in a July 2013 post). In a nutshell, Microsoft exerts total control over OWA whereas it cedes control to mobile device manufacturers when EAS is used by a mail app to communicate with Exchange. Despite the sterling efforts of Microsoft and Apple to ensure that Exchange and iOS play nice together, the experience of all those iOS upgrades breaking EAS is difficult to dislodge.

So lots of good stuff was discussed at MEC. The conference was well up to the expected standard and I enjoyed it tremendously, even if some Microsoft employees (who shall be nameless) stole my cardboard cutout and took it on a tour of bars and restaurants in Austin before eventually ending up at the MEC speaker party. Truly an appropriate end for my participation at a memorable MEC.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Apr 4, 2014

The "Experts Unplugged: EOP and Encryption" session was one and "Exchange Online security investments" session was another that covered all matter of security issues to do with the cloud. You could have asked questions there.

on Apr 7, 2014

I don't agree. OWA is a fallback for when you don't have access to a full client. E.g. on a public PC. E.g. on a smartphone with bad exchange connectivity.

1. OWA is not a sync protocol. For smartphones a sync protocol is essential. For example exchange contacts should be synced to the phone's store of contacts so you can call them. Calendar items should be synced so you get alarms. And so on. That means that OWA is supplemental to ActiveSync for situations where the native software goes wrong. Not very exciting, and better to fix bugs in native software instead, starting with Windows Phone which is currently the worst platform for exchange (since others have touchdown).

2. Web apps are inferior to native apps. Code is not efficient. Reliability is not guaranteed. Interactions with the OS are limited. OWA will never have the same efficiency or professional quality as Outlook on PC or Outlook mobile on old Windows Mobile.

on May 13, 2014

Au contraire, OWA can operate as a fully synchronized client because it includes offline access. You're right that there are some places where current EAS client implementations are better done than OWA is today. But this is after many years of work and integrating contacts and other mailbox data with a smartphone comes with a potential downside and difficulty in that if the server ever issues a wipe command, should it wipe all the data on the smartphone (as happens with EAS) or just the data that is held in the client container (as happens with OWA). I also disagree that Windows Phone has the worst email client for Exchange. I use Outlook Mobile every day on a Nokia Lumia 1020 running the Windows Phone 8.1 dev build and am very happy. I also have my doubts as to your assertion that web apps are inferior to native apps as it surely all depends on how well the apps are written. And one thing we have learned from EAS-based apps (like the iOS mail app) is that it is very possible to screw up a native app and have that screw up wreak havoc on the server.

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Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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