This week's release of Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2 as a public download makes it possible for more people to see what the combination of Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 and Exchange 2007 will bring to the table. The three most prominent areas of change are in mail profile configuration, scheduling, and the opportunity to begin migrating away from public folders. Administrators and users alike will be pleased with additional changes in Out of Office Assistant (OOA), Rules Wizard, and other features.

The first difference shows when a user creates a new mail profile in Outlook 2007. If the user has authenticated to the domain, Outlook 2007 automatically looks up the user's mail account in Active Directory (AD) and enters the right alias and mail server. (This feature works even with Exchange 2003 and 2000.) If the user hasn't authenticated (e.g., if the user needs to access the mailbox over the Internet via remote procedure call--RPC--over HTTPS), Outlook asks the user to enter his or her email address, then sends that information in a Web service query to the Autodiscover service for the address's domain. That service is provided by an Exchange 2007 server configured for the client access server (CAS) role. The server queries AD and sends a response to Outlook with the user's mailbox alias and server, plus other information that Outlook needs to create the mail profile, including the URL for the availability Web service that Outlook 2007 will use to perform free/busy lookups. All the user needs to provide is the email address.

Outlook 2007 and Exchange 2007 together can help users avoid scheduling meeting conflicts, book the right room, and keep attendees updated, while protecting privacy. Instead of the simple scheduling grid provided in earlier versions (and in Outlook 2007 connecting to Exchange 2003 and 2000 mailboxes), Outlook 2007 users connecting to Exchange 2007 will see a Scheduling Assistant that color codes dates to show which are "best," depending on the number of attendees who don't have conflicts. The Scheduling Assistant also offers an Add Rooms button to help the users pick a conference room that is the right size. As in previous versions, the Exchange administrator still needs to set up a separate mailbox for each conference room or equipment resource, but resource configuration no longer requires running Outlook to set certain mailbox options. Exchange 2007 handles all room and equipment resource configuration at the server level, with multiple levels of access so some people can book a particular room directly any time; others might need to go through a room manager for particular booking times or even all the time. Room managers will be able to handle their booking confirmation tasks with Outlook Web Access (OWA).

The 2007 versions also provide greater meeting privacy. Exchange administrators can configure rooms and equipment resource accounts so that they store booked meeting items with only the organizer's name in the Subject field and no other details in the meeting item. Free/busy lookup becomes more granular with four different permission levels to choose from: no access, full details (equivalent to the Review role on the Calendar folder), view free/busy time only, and view free/busy time, subject, and location. An executive, for example, can grant full access to her Calendar folder to an assistant, set the Default user's access to None, and grant free/busy time, subject, and location access to peers and direct reports.

Exchange 2007 also can handle meeting acceptances on the server not--just for resource calendars, but also for user mailboxes, thus solving many meeting acceptance problems. For example, if a user receives multiple updates for a particular meeting, Exchange 2007 will consolidate them, thus eliminating one source of Inbox clutter. Free/busy information will come directly from the mailboxes, using a Web service, rather than from a separate folder that doesn't always contain up-to-date information. A free/busy public folder will be needed only to support clients older than Outlook 2007.

Outlook 2007 also will no longer be dependent on Exchange public folders for distribution of the Offline Address Book (OAB) and management of Outlook security settings. The Exchange 2007 version of OWA won't expose the Public Folders hierarchy at all.

The OOA gains many new configuration options: advance scheduling, separate internal and external messages, and HTML support. Users will be able to restrict external OOA responses to those addresses in their Contacts folder, whereas administrators will be able to limit external OOA responses to certain domains or prevent some users from sending external OOA responses.

And that's not all! The limit on the size of Rules Wizard rules increases from 32KB to 256KB, configurable by the administrator for each individual mailbox. The Address Book dialog in Outlook 2007 will show SMTP addresses, not X.400-style addresses, for Exchange users. Mailbox limit notifications will be customizable. The user's Safe Senders list can be pushed to the edge transport server so messages from those people are not blocked by Exchange 2007's junk mail filter. Users not connecting in Cached Exchange mode can take advantage of server-based indexed searches of their mailbox data. "Managed folders" are available to help enforce retention policies. The performance of RPC over HTTPS connections has improvements "under the hood." Finally, in organizations that take advantage of the new unified messaging (UM) features in Exchange 2007, Outlook 2007 users will be able to play voice mail messages and view faxes directly in the reading pane.

All these features make Outlook 2007 plus Exchange 2007 a combination worth looking at to improve performance, privacy, and collaboration.

Exchange 2007 Beta 2 http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/exchange/2007/downloads/beta.mspx

Office 2007 Beta 2 http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview/beta/getthebeta.mspx