By now you've probably had a chance to read the articles about Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, examine the reviews, or even test the product for yourself. And maybe you've decided which features you can build a case around if you need to convince those who control the purse-strings in your company that it's worth upgrading your messaging infrastructure to Exchange 2010. Certainly, the built-in high availability through database availability groups (DAGs) is a feature on top of a lot of such lists. But don't forget the improvements to the web experience in Outlook Web App (OWA), particularly if your company has vocal end users.
A few of the OWA improvements have been widely talked about: conversation view for messages, integrated IM and presence information, multi-browser support for the premium version of OWA. And don't forget MailTips, that handy new feature that can warn users before they mistakenly send a message to a massive distribution list or to external recipients. There are some other new features that I've heard a little less about so far, such as the ability to do calendar sharing with people outside your organization and the possibility of sending and receiving text messages (Short Message Service—SMS).
That's just the fun you get from the user side of OWA 2010. Exchange admins get some new extras as well, starting with the Exchange Control Panel (ECP). From here, users can perform any of the actions previously available on the Options page. You can also manage distribution lists, perform message tracking, and even configure message retention policies through ECP. Users must be granted appropriate permissions to perform these actions, of course. Admins can also give their users the ability to update their Active Directory information. As Mark Rotman, president and CEO of Messageware, said, "It alleviates that HR headache around employees moving, changing phone numbers, that kind of information being out of date. You now have the ability to give them role-based access to some of this Active Directory data."
So altogether, OWA with Exchange 2010 provides a complete mail client experience in the browser—no longer playing second fiddle to the desktop version of Outlook. In fact, most of these new features won't be available in Outlook 2007 or earlier, so you'll have to wait until Outlook 2010 is released before taking advantage of them in a desktop client. Latest prediction on that release, along with the complete Office 2010 suite, is June 2010.
For early adopters of Exchange 2010, that could pose a dilemma. As Rotman said, "Do you plan your migration, and wait because you don't have all the clients you need? Or do you have a serious look at OWA and the advantages you can get and maybe make that leap now?" With the dramatic improvements in OWA, companies might be willing to seriously consider avoiding using the desktop client at all. I can imagine a scenario where companies move to Exchange 2010 while still using Outlook 2007 and their users voluntarily opt to use OWA 2010 to get the latest features.
With more people checking email on mobile devices on the go, perhaps the desktop client has lessened in importance anyway. If companies can give users the full Outlook experience without buying the extra software, many of them are likely to make that choice. As Rotman said, "What's interesting is these really, really large organizations, as opposed to the small ones—the really large ones actually are seriously saying, 'Hey, there's a big cost savings here. The OWA client can alleviate a lot of our headaches, and we need to look and see is it good enough this time around.' And I think the answer's going to come back that it is."
I spoke with Astrid McClean, a senior technical product manager on the Exchange team with Microsoft, and asked her what she thought about the possibility of people skipping desktop Outlook in light of OWA 2010 improvements. "I don't think it will stop people upgrading," McClean said. "But it gives organizations more choice. So what we're finding is a number of organizations where they may not have given their users email access at all because they don't all have a PC or they're working on shifts and have to share PCs. It now gives them a far greater option to give their people a browser-based tool to connect to. So it's really about making sure that organizations have a choice about which tool they want to use, and in making that choice they're not losing functionality."
I don't think Outlook on the desktop is doomed. People's habits don't change as quickly as the technology, and Outlook is pretty well entrenched for many business workers. But having a full-featured browser-based client is awfully nice, too. And considering all the movement toward cloud computing and cloud platforms, this seems to put Microsoft and Exchange in a great position going forward.