April 28, 2009, 5:10 PM — For most Mac users, the phrase Exchange Server has been the cause of a great deal of annoyance and frustration. From bizarro ways of encoding rich text e-mail, (winmail.dat, anyone?) to a host of features that were forever out of reach unless you were on Windows using the most current version of Outlook, being a Mac user in an Exchange world meant you were sitting at the kid's table in the kitchen, staring longingly at the adults having a good time.
Even aside from fat client issues, possibly the worst bit was the fact that even with webmail, Microsoft made sure to put non-Internet Explorer users in what the company thought was their proper place--the seedy part of town. Every version of Outlook Web Access (OWA) had two faces: The fun happy face that users of Internet Explorer on Windows saw, where every version of Exchange put you closer to feature parity with Outlook, and the sad, angry face that everyone else saw that was--to be kind--crippled in comparison. The Exchange Team could come up with all the reasons it wanted (some more legitimate than others), but the message from Exchange as a product was always clear: If you aren't on Windows, well, it sucks to be you.
True, once Microsoft did have an actual half-decent Outlook client for the Mac, but that was done by the Exchange team, and as soon as Mac OS X came out, the company just walked away from it, leaving its Macintosh Business Unit to clean up the mess and try to shoehorn Exchange functionality into Entourage. For the resources at their disposal, the Entourage team has done an admirable job, with major Exchange improvements with every release. Still, the "second-class citizen" part remains clear. If you aren't on Windows, you get what you get and be happy you even get that.
Changes in attitude
In the last month, the Microsoft Exchange team has released details and a public beta of Exchange 2010. And something funny happened--real, concrete change to the usual "Only Windows sits at the Adult Table" schtick. The biggest one: a premium version of Outlook Web Access for everyone. Users of Firefox 3 and Safari 3 (and later) now get the "real" version of OWA--the same thing that Internet 7 and 8 users get. And that includes presence support from Office Communications Server (OCS). Don't take my word for it, check out the screenshots of OWA 2010 running on Safari 4 beta 2 on Paul Robichaux's site. That's not the crippleware I remember OWA being on Safari.
For companies running Exchange, the fact of an Exchange that no longer segregates OWA users carries multiple benefits. The number of "why can't I..." questions answered by "Because you aren't on Windows" will drop. Support gets easier since the "which version of OWA" questions go down. Fewer users feeling punished because they aren't on Windows and Internet Explorer means better interdepartmental relationships. True, you have to get Exchange 2010 for this, but, it's a great reason to do so.
There are some improvements in Exchange Active Sync (EAS), such as Free/Busy lookup, SMS sync to OWA, and so on. The Exchange 2010 site at Microsoft wasn't clear if the EAS improvements require the actual WIndows Mobile client, or if it's just EAS/Exchange 2010. If it's the latter, that would be a great feature for companies using devices like iPhones against Exchange, as the iPhone has supported EAS since version 2 of the iPhone OS appeared last year.
Impact on Entourage
Of course, the big unanswered question here is "What about Entourage?" Well, while the Mac BU has been silent about what changes it'll bring to Entourage in the next major version of Office on the Mac (Hey guys, call me!), the truth is, it hasn't been sitting on its hands waiting for a major paid release. In January, the Mac BU released the Entourage for Exchange Web Services beta, which replaces the former WebDAV Exchange connection with the newer Web Services connection method. (Note: For those claiming MAPI would fix all of Entourage's Exchange issues, MAPI is going away, too. Both APIs were hard as heck to work with. Web Services are simpler and cleaner, and Microsoft is actually providing a public API for them via MSDN.)
By moving to Web Services, Entourage gets:
- Synchronization of Notes and Tasks (A big one);
- Category sync (another huge win);
- Improved performance (everyone I've talked to using the beta verifies this);
- Better autodiscovery;
- Better logging;
- Support for attachments in Exchange Calendar events; and
- You can use the Global Address List, (GAL) via Web Services, so you don't need a VPN connection just to find a contact.
Also, from what I can see, when Entourage EWS comes out of beta, it will be a free update for Entourage users. (Yes, that's a guess, but it's one I'm comfortable making.) The downside? To get this, you will have to be either on Exchange 2007 SP1 with Update Rollup 4 or later, or, Exchange 2010. Considering this is a mid-stream update, I don't think it's completely crazy to expect that the next major version of Office for the Mac will include more Exchange support in Entourage. As Web Services support improves in Exchange, Entourage will be better able to take advantage of them, and while there will always be some feature disparity, Web Services has already done much to shrink that quite a bit.
So while Exchange 2010 isn't going to magically make Mac users achieve complete feature parity with Windows users, it will make life much easier for them.
John C. Welch is a senior systems administrator for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.