In last week's column, I discussed some aspects of getting Exchange 2000 Server ready for prime time. This week, let's look at some new aspects of what that prime time use might actually be. We all expect Exchange 2000 to be bigger, better, and faster than its 5.5 predecessor, but some new features in Exchange 2000, specifically Instant Messaging (IM), Chat, and Conferencing, make it truly interesting.

Many companies are looking at ways to leverage technologies such as IM, Chat, and Conferencing to help their employees work better (improve communication channels, make better use of infrastructure, and ultimately reduce costs). At the same time, other companies are looking at implementing these technologies commercially (e.g., application service providers—ASPs—using IM and Chat to offer Internet services to the paying public).

Today, more than 80 million people use Internet-based IM services, and AOL boasts a mind-blowing 750 million instant messages per 24 hours. That's twice as many letters as the US Postal Service delivers in a day! IM offers a crisp, succinct way to exchange snippets of information. Microsoft describes IM as combining the urgency of the telephone with the functionality of email. Although useful, this description doesn't disclose that the real power of IM as an enterprise tool is in the "presence information" it provides.

Presence information lets users specify that they are logged on, on the phone, or away from their desk. This functionality can be ingeniously incorporated into workflow or document-routing applications or eventually into mobile communication devices. Look a little into the future and picture yourself automatically receiving an instant message from your significant other as he or she starts the drive home from work—a sensor is tripped or a Global Positioning System (GPS) kicks in. That instant message should be enough information to encourage you to get dinner in the oven or at least call for some take-out food.

On the Chat front, Exchange 2000 supports the concept of communities of interest, where registered users can dynamically create chat rooms, and system administrators can manage user activity. Couple this feature with the greatly improved HTTP access to Public Folders and a little Active Server Pages (ASP) -coding, and a solid collaborative working environment is within reach.

Similarly, Exchange Conferencing brings the old NetMeeting functionality into the new millennium with integrated and centrally managed support for whiteboarding, application sharing, and audio and video conferencing. This functionality has been available, but now it's managed from Exchange 2000, integrated into Outlook, and implemented on a multicast basis, not peer-to-peer as it was in its previous life. These new innovations make the conferencing service much more scalable and ready for the enterprise.

I know what you're thinking! You've heard the hype before. You've read the marketing brochures and seen the glitzy demos. But the integration of this functionality into the Exchange 2000 platform, which can scale to tens of thousands of users per system, makes it feasible in corporate environments for the first time.

Take off the blinders and stop thinking of Exchange 2000 as simply a messaging platform—it's much more than that. Exchange 2000 is a collaboration platform. It's not perfect, but it's getting closer to delivering what users in your environment want. Exchange's flexibility lets you easily customize it, and writing enhancements or modifications using Visual Basic (VB) and Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) produces powerful results, typically taking only a few lines of code.

It's time to get away from just the plumbing with Exchange 2000 and begin constructing and crafting solutions with it. A wealth of opportunity exists for bending and stretching the product like never before, but doing so requires an open mind and an inclination to embrace this new description of the Exchange world. To quote the last sentence of a famous 1935 physics book on the then new theory of quantum mechanics: "It seems that some essentially new physical ideas are here needed."

Take heed, and take action.