Touchdown—a solution for BYOD email?

Loss of control over the software run to connect to corporate services is just one of the issues for companies that’s exposed by the BYOD craze. Given the range of devices that people use, it’s practically impossible for administrators and help desk personnel to know the details of the applications that connect. In the case of email and Microsoft Exchange Server, the problem is compounded by the varying degrees of competence in the implementation of email clients that use Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). The problems with Apple’s iOS mail app are well known, with a different batch seeming to appear with each new release. Apple is not the only culprit; EAS clients running on Android vary in quality and functionality too.

Faced with the BYOD tsunami, companies can go with the flow and hope that users will be able to cope with the help desk’s inability to support email connectivity, or they can look for an application that supports multiple platforms. Frustrated by the weak Windows 8 mail app, I was intrigued to discover that NitroDesk, the folks behind Touchdown for iOS and Android, have made a beta version of Touchdown for Windows 8 available for testing. The application supports the Metro paradigm and runs on Windows Surface RT devices too.

Touchdown is a pretty interesting application. Written by ex-Microsoft developers, it aims to deliver a mobile client that leverages EAS to the hilt and support much better security than the basic mail applications available on iOS and Android (including platforms like the Kindle Fire and Nook). Wisely, Windows Phone is left to Microsoft. I suspect that the volume is just not there yet to warrant the development of a version of Touchdown for Windows Phone and anyway, Windows Phone contains Outlook Mobile, unsurprisingly the best EAS client on the market.

Touchdown uses AES-256 security, supports the full set of EAS policies (most clients support only the basic set), and can deal with extended Exchange functionality such as Information Rights Management and Data Loss Prevention.

I downloaded the beta and installed it on my Windows 8 PC. Installation is easy, with the only twist being that because it’s a beta (unsigned) application, you have to get a Windows developer license to run the code. The installation procedure, which leverages PowerShell extensively, guides you through getting the license so no difficulty exists there.

Once installed, despite Nitrodesk’s assertion that they had only tested their application with Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2010 (Touchdown supports any version better than Exchange 2003 SP2), I was able to connect the client to my Exchange Online (Office 365) mailbox. Microsoft’s guidelines on how to connect mobile devices to Exchange Online with EAS are useful here.

Touchdown

Touchdown is easy to use and is much more functional than the standard Windows 8 mail app. Understandably because it’s a beta, some bugs are present. For instance, some messages are listed twice and a notification message to say how many new items are in the Inbox popped up inconsistently. In addition, I couldn’t find how to control synchronization so that more than five days’ worth of email was downloaded. These are small points that I’d expect to be sorted in the final release.

Of course, the alternative to not using the mail app is to connect to Exchange Online (or Exchange on-premises) with Outlook Web App, which is fine, but it doesn’t support offline access. Providing you use a suitable browser (such as Chrome or IE10), Exchange Online will support offline access for Outlook Web App once Microsoft deploys Exchange 2013 into their datacenters, but offline access is not the big advantage delivered by Touchdown. Instead, I see the advantages being in security, advanced functionality, and the ability to run a single client across multiple device families, especially one that supports a large number of mobile device management tools. Support becomes much easier too when you have a single software vendor providing the application for all your BYOD devices.

If you’re considering the options to provide email service to a broad range of mobile devices, you could do worse than review Touchdown.

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Tony Redmond

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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