Mobile devices are here to stay. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that they represent the area in which unified communications (UC) software and services have the most potential to grow and flourish. Modern high-end devices' combination of portability, processing power, ubiquitous connectivity, and location awareness open the door to some groundbreaking possibilities. Microsoft has steadily improved the mobility support in successive Exchange Server versions.
Exchange 2010 continues that pattern, offering strengthened mobile device support and platform enhancements. To get a real sense of the value of these changes, let's set them in the broader context of what’s happening in the mobile device market—an important perspective, because the mobile market has changed a great deal since Microsoft designed and delivered Exchange 2007.
Mobile Device Trends
The changes in the mobile device arena aren’t just driven by increasing numbers of devices on the market. The big change is that the devices are getting smarter and more powerful. In August 2009, Gartner reported that in the second quarter of 2009 alone more than 40 million smartphones were sold worldwide (of 286 million total phones). Extrapolate those numbers out for a year or two, and it’s not outrageous to imagine half a billion smartphones in the world. Hopefully they’re not plotting to form Skynet!
Smartphones used to be the exclusive province of information workers, but as their price/performance ratio has improved they’re much more widespread. Every major mobile phone vendor has smartphones in its lineup; some, such as Apple and Palm, have nothing but smartphones. Microsoft is partially responsible for this trend; the emergence of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) as the de facto mobile device sync standard—and its wide adoption even by Microsoft’s fiercest competitors—has helped make smartphones much more desirable.
Exchange 2010 Mobility Features
Exchange 2010 boasts a long list of mobility features. However, many of these improvements are upgrades or polishes of existing Exchange 2007 features. Outlook Web App is totally new, and it could be argued that it’s a mobility tool, but when you look at purpose-built mobility features, the story is a bit different. For example, EAS is still the device-sync protocol that Exchange offers to compatible devices, but the Exchange 2010 version of EAS (version 14) adds some key functionality. Here’s a list of important mobility changes and improvements in Exchange 2010.
- Support for Conversation view in Windows Mobile’s Outlook application—This view functions like the Conversation views in Outlook 2010 and Outlook Web App 2010: It groups related messages and treats them as a single unit, no matter what folder they’re in. This feature depends on metadata added to messages by the Exchange 2010 server. It has the biggest effect, and is most useful, for messages that are delivered after you deploy Exchange 2010. Exchange will make a game effort to fit existing messages into conversations, but without the additional metadata it’s a hit-or-miss proposition much of the time.
- Synchronization of Short Message Service (SMS) text messages between a user’s Inbox folder and phone—Text messages sent or received on the phone can be automatically synced to the corresponding Sent Items and Inbox folders, where they're then available to the full range of Exchange features: flagging, inclusion in search folders, and so on. In addition, you can create an SMS message in Outlook or Outlook Web Access (OWA), then have it sent from your phone.
- Free/busy lookup for contacts—This feature is made possible by Exchange Web Services, which offers a simple way for applications to query free/busy status or get suggested meeting times. It’s a great addition to the mobile client.
- A shared nickname cache used by Outlook 2010, OWA, and the mobile device.
There are some other features in the new version of Outlook Mobile that aren’t related directly to Exchange 2010, such as the ability to play voicemail messages inline (as you can with Outlook 2007 and later) instead of in a separate player application. As a bonus, Exchange 2010 adds the ability to record messages in MP3 format so they can be played on a wider variety of devices. Perhaps the biggest change from a market perspective is the ability to put the Exchange 2010 version of Outlook Mobile (version 6.5) on Windows 6.1 devices. Microsoft originally planned to ship it with Windows Mobile 6.5, which launched last fall. Given the way Microsoft’s mobile-operator customers work, it’s difficult to release Windows Mobile updates for existing devices.
Rather than require an entire Windows Mobile update, the Exchange and Windows Mobile teams collaborated to produce an update system that’s built into Exchange. When you enable an Exchange 2010 mailbox for mobile device support, it’s now possible for the user to get an update message. The update message contains a link to a small bootstrapping program that the user downloads over the air from his or her Exchange 2010 server. That bootstrap program then connects to Microsoft’s servers to get the appropriate build of Outlook Mobile 6.5 (for example) for the user’s Windows Mobile version and device CPU. This is a clever idea, enabling the Exchange team to deliver some pretty compelling new features without requiring users to get rid of their Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1 devices.
Changes from Exchange 2007
Apart from the new Exchange 2010 features, there are also a number of changes to existing features. Let’s start with a discussion of what hasn’t changed (or at least hasn’t changed much). The EAS policies supported in Exchange 2007 SP1 and later are essentially unchanged. There are a couple of terrific changes, though—notably, the ability to allow or block specific applications through the new Other tab on the Policy Properties dialog box and a very nice (though largely unnoticed) ability to generate a variety of useful reports about EAS devices. You can use the Export-ActiveSyncLog cmdlet to generate reports based on the contents of the IIS log files. (Remember, EAS is essentially an IIS application.) These reports include the following:
- A general usage report that includes the total number of bytes sent and received, as well as a count of item types (email messages, calendar items, contacts, tasks) sent and received. These reports are produced as CSV files for easy import into Excel or other analysis tools.
- A report showing the number of sync requests processed per hour, as well as the total number of unique devices requesting sync.
- A summary of sync errors, showing the percentage of time each error or status code occurred.
- A report showing the number of devices that comply with a given EAS policy. This report shows devices that don’t comply at all (usually because they don’t support policies or because the user rejected it), devices that comply with some but not all aspects of the policy, and devices that comply with all settings in the policy.
- A report totaling the number of users, grouped by mobile device OS. If you want to know how many iPhone users you have in your organization, you'll love this tool.
Microsoft also added Exchange Management Shell cmdlets that let you allow, block, or quarantine devices. This functionality works in a couple of different ways. First, by using the ActiveSyncAllowedDeviceIDs parameter with the Set-CASMailbox cmdlet, you can specify the GUIDs of individual devices that a specified user can use (presuming that you know the GUID values, which you have to look up on a per-mailbox basis). You can also use the *-ActiveSyncDeviceAccessRule cmdlets to manage EAS access rules. These rules can allow, block, or quarantine devices based on the device OS revision, the User-Agent HTTP header that the device presents, or the model or type. So, for example, you can easily block any iPhone from synchronizing, and you can allow all Windows Mobile 6.1 devices to connect but require administrator permission to sync any older or newer Windows Mobile devices.
What Third Parties Are Doing
One of the reasons Exchange has been such a success in the marketplace is that its product team made a sound decision to license EAS as widely as possible. This tactic has greatly spurred adoption of EAS as a mobile sync protocol, which—not coincidentally—has driven demand for Exchange deployments.
It’s important to remember that there are two sides to Exchange’s mobility support: the server and the client. Just because Exchange 2010 implements a feature or option, there’s no guarantee that a particular EAS-capable device will implement it as well. The iPhone is a great example: you can set up an EAS policy that blocks the use of the onboard camera or Bluetooth hardware for devices that sync with your server, but, as the iPhone ignores these policy settings, you won’t get the desired results—through no fault of your own (or Microsoft’s).
Here's a quick look at what some of the major EAS licensees are doing, or have done, about Exchange 2010 mobility support:
- Palm has steadily improved the sync behavior of the Palm Pre and its smaller sibling, the Palm Pixi. These devices don’t implement the full suite of EAS features, though.
- Google’s Android OS has spread and is now featured on several devices, notably the Motorola Droid on Verizon. The Droid is one of the only Android devices to feature built-in EAS support. Android is still a weak presence outside the US market, though Google undoubtedly plans to spread it far and wide.
- Apple is famously tight-lipped about future products. The company hasn’t said whether it plans to do anything in future iPhone software releases to improve its lackluster Exchange support, especially the poor functionality and compatibility of the included calendar application and the lack of ability to delete and move messages while offline. If the summer 2009 Snow Leopard Mac OS X release is any guide, don’t expect huge improvements. It would be great if Apple would at least properly support the EAS “smart reply” and “smart forward” verbs so that message replies or forwards retain the original message formatting.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the mobile device world is still Research in Motion (RIM). Sadly, as of the time of this writing, RIM isn't yet shipping a version of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) that fully supports Exchange 2010. The company has, however, announced plans to do so. It'll be interesting to see whether the BES product’s history of causing a large performance impact on Exchange continues in this newest revision; Exchange itself has changed the way it handles MAPI traffic (on which BES depends) so that MAPI is now handled by the Client Access Server (CAS) role instead of solely by the mailbox server. For that reason, it may be that Exchange 2010 mailbox servers will suffer less from the impact of BES users—but only time will tell, and only at the cost of redirecting that load to the CAS instead. Interestingly, a few companies, including AstraSync, now sell EAS clients that run directly on BlackBerry devices, obviating the need for BES servers altogether.
Now is an exciting time to be working in the mobility space. Handset manufacturers, OS vendors, and collaboration software vendors are all furiously trying to kill each other off! You have only to look at the sales trend numbers for the iPhone, RIM devices, Windows Mobile units, Android devices, and Symbian devices to see that we’re rapidly heading toward a world in which the norm is to have many different devices all speaking a fairly small set of common sync protocols—which is great news for EAS!