New email features from Microsoft and Google prove the worth of competition

Competition between Microsoft and Google for dominance in cloud-based email systems has never been as intense with new features "lighting up" in the respective services on a regular basis. Both companies now offer inactive account management, although Google takes a user-centric approach while Microsoft leaves it to administrators to control matters. These features are reasonably new but Google has offered users a monthly activity report since March 2012. It would be interesting to see a similar feature appear in Exchange Online.

Apropos to my recent post about the importance of the competition that has occurred between Google and Microsoft in the evolution of email since the introduction of Gmail in April 2004, it's worth noting that the level of competition between the two companies around email features is intense. So much so that the need to remain competitive is one of the major factors behind Microsoft's new cumulative update strategy for Exchange 2013.

Essentially, Microsoft has to "light up" new features in Exchange Online to match the pace of development set by Google. And because Microsoft now uses the same code base for on-premises and cloud-based versions of Exchange, on-premises customers have to deal with updates every three months. Change driven by competition can have a downside too.

Two features serve to illumunate the kind of change in email that is driven by competition. First, Google's Inactive Account Manager, a truly woeful if technically accurate name for the feature. Essentially, this feature deals with the situation when someone shuffles off the mortal coil. Email is now the repository for lots of essential information that the family of the late departed can use, but if the family are unaware that a Gmail mailbox is available, they will not be able to access the information.

The Inactive Account Manager allows a user to dictate what should happen if their mailbox should become inactive for three, six, nine, or twelve months. I chose six months as a reasonable period, mostly because I plan to be around for a while yet, but if I don’t sign into my Google account for four months (two months before the selected period), Google will send my mobile phone an SMS message to notify me that the account is in danger of becoming “inactive”.

Then, if the full period elapses, you can select up to ten trusted friends to receive notification of that fact and they will have the chance to recover information from the Google account, including Gmail, by being granted access to the account. It all seems a very logical arrangement, so I’ve set it up so that my wife will be able to access the account.

Microsoft also supports the notion of “inactive mailboxes” in Exchange Online (Office 365), but not yet for any version of on-premises Exchange. This feature works by placing a mailbox on indefinite in-place hold and then deleting the mailbox. Because the mailbox is under an in-place hold, its contents will be retained but the user cannot log on and connect. The tenant is not charged a monthly fee for keeping an inactive mailbox. Administrators can retrieve information from the mailbox if required by conducting a search and then exporting the found data to a PST.

In some ways, I prefer Google’s approach because it is user-driven rather than administrator-initiated. A user can make their own choice before their departure and have their wishes respected and I see a lot of value in this method. On the other hand, you can argue that leaving things to the administrator means that inactive mailboxes work in other situations, such as when an employee leaves a company and you need to keep their data for a period. It’s also worth noting that in-place hold is a feature restricted to Office 365 “E” plans, so you can’t use this feature if you have a “P” or “M” plan.

The second feature, which I like very much, is the ability for users to subscribe to a Google account activity report. Unlike the inactive account feature, which is new for both platforms, Google account activity has been around since March 2012. I just take time to notice new and interesting developments. In a nutshell, if you sign up, Google will send you a monthly report giving facts such as the number of messages your Gmail mailbox received. OK, I am a self-confessed nerd, but who wouldn't like knowing just how busy a mailbox they run?

Of course, Google uses a very different architecture to drive its services than Microsoft does and it might well be the case that this kind of user-level analysis is much easier for Google to perform than it is for Microsoft. For example, it might take a lot of work for Microsoft to take the message tracking logs generated across Office 365 and extract the same kind of information that Google makes available to its users – or a lot of engineering effort to build a reporting engine that works across the entire Office 365 suite. In fact, it would be nice if Microsoft did a better job of reporting all round as even the places where reporting is provided are not wonderful (think of the mailbox and administrative auditing reports options available through ECP and EAC in Exchange 2010 and 2013).

Competition is a wonderful thing when it drives innovation and advances the state of the art. I rather like the cut and thrust that occurs between Microsoft and Google. It just keeps things interesting!

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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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