Last week, Microsoft produced a series of Exchange 12 preview Webcasts that made public some interesting tidbits about some of the new functionality in Exchange 12. The four preview Webcasts were what Microsoft calls "200-level" sessions: They had some technical detail, but not much; 300-level and 400-level sessions, which are more often found at events like TechEd and Exchange Connections, have more technical depth and meatier demos.

The four preview Webcasts covered several aspects of Exchange 12:

- Terry Myerson, general manager of the Exchange team, presented an overview of what's in Exchange 12. - Perry Clarke, a product unit manager (PUM) on the Exchange team, did a session about architectural changes in Exchange 12, including the new setup program (a major improvement over its predecessors) and some information on the new server roles supported by Exchange 12. - David Lemson's session on the new client access functionality in Exchange 12 was my favorite. Why? It highlighted some very impressive new functionality for clients, including pervasive document access and the Calendar Concierge. - Marco DeMello, another PUM, presented a good session on Exchange 12 security features, including the interesting disclosure that the edge server role in Exchange 12 can automatically protect email from eavesdropping and that we're finally going to get the capability to automatically strip attachments based on content type, extension, or file size.

David's session highlighted some very cool new features. Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) gains the ability to browse the Global Address List (GAL); you can see a free/busy map for a person when you select his or her GAL entry, and OWA gets the full "Conversation" view that's so useful in Office Outlook 2003 and Entourage. There's a totally revamped interface for picking meeting times, which is a huge improvement over the existing system. This interface depends on the Calendar Concierge. This is actually a service running on the Exchange client access server; the service automatically tentatively accepts meetings and puts them on your calendar. That means that your calendar will always be up to date, even when you don't have Outlook running. All users, including those using OWA or Exchange ActiveSync, will see an up-to-date calendar at all times. There are major improvements to resource booking as well.

All of these calendaring features are powered by an availability Web service that makes free/busy information available to Web services clients (including, in this case, Outlook 2007 and OWA 12). Any Web services application can produce and consume free/busy data through this interface. This approach means that the familiar Schedule+ Free/Busy public folder is no longer required if you have an "all-12" environment. Outlook 2003 and earlier still require the public folder. There's an interoperability mechanism that lets the availability service check free/busy data for users on Exchange 2003 and Exchange 12 servers, then unify the results.

Perhaps the most exciting feature to me was the new document access capabilities in OWA. It's common for mail messages to contain links to intranet file shares or Web sites. If you're on the intranet when you click on one of those links, you'll get the correct content--but if you're not, you'll get nothing but an error message. OWA 12 includes a proxy that provides read-only access to intranet documents in SharePoint libraries and file shares. I'll be writing more about this in the future, because this feature enables a wealth of new scenarios. (There are also obvious security implications, which is why there's a wide range of security controls.)

To see the Webcast recordings for yourself--which I strongly recommend--visit http://www.microsoft.com/events/series/tnexchangeserver.mspx. There are two more Webcasts, both 300-level, coming up on April 18 and April 25.

In the meantime, I'm still collecting session proposals for the fall Exchange Connections conference (November 6-10 in Las Vegas). With Exchange 12 in public beta by then, we'll be combining new Exchange 12-focused content with the sessions and topics you've asked for from previous shows. If there's a topic or technology you'd like to see covered in more detail, drop me a line.