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Reality Check
October 2002

Robert Vahid Hashemian Exchange -- Still Chasing The Collaboration Dream


About two years ago I attended a free Microsoft event in New York City celebrating the launch of their new Exchange Server 2000 e-mail platform. The event was the usual pumping up of the Microsoft marketing machine. The dog and pony show included a number of presenters, some boring techies, some very animated support personnel, and finally a live video feed from Bill Gates and other heavy-hitters from the Microsoft mother ship. There were also a number of companies exhibiting their latest products that were claimed to be Exchange 2000 compliant.

I thought the event was fairly well executed -- certainly the free food helped me to reach that conclusion. Their trick worked (at least on me). I came away with a new sense of determination to upgrade our e-mail infrastructure from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000. I was impressed by all the information about how well Exchange 2000 integrated with Active Directory, the new Web storage system, higher degree of stability and scalability (the de facto standard adjectives used to promote any product), and a polished up Outlook Web Access.

One matter that immediately became evident to me during that event was that Microsoft would not classify the new Exchange server as an e-mail server. It was touted as a collaborative messaging product and they made sure the attendees didn't forget that. Even to people like me, who are unfamiliar with other collaborative products on the market, it was obvious that this new release was squarely aimed at competing with IBM's Lotus Notes and Novell's GroupWise. Given that these products have an established and lucrative user base, it was no wonder that Microsoft would try to divert some of that market share to its side.

Other highly touted features of the new Exchange server (which fit nicely with the collaboration angle) were instant messaging and video conferencing (an add-on product). Utilizing the T.120 and H.323 protocols, these features were to revolutionize the way we work and collaborate.

And so the decision was made for us to migrate to Exchange 2000. I would have to say that Exchange 2000 provided the real impetus for us to upgrade our infrastructure to Active Directory. With Active Directory in place we upgraded our Exchange 5.5 installation in two steps. First we utilized a utility known as ADC (Active Directory Connector) to synchronize the Exchange 5.5 accounts with our Active Directory accounts. Then we made the upgrade from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000. To be fair, the upgrade went a lot more smoothly than many others have reported. Many people, having been faced with failed upgrades, have been forced to make new Exchange 2000 installation and then manually move the contents of the mailboxes to the new installation.

Well, it has been over a year since we have been running on Exchange server. It is a somewhat superior product to Exchange 5.5. The integration with Active Directory means that we only need to manage one set of accounts for our company, the product is more stable, and Outlook Web Access (the Web interface to mailboxes) looks sharper. The Web storage system also offers a variety of ways to connect to, access, and store information within Exchange's repository. A few Web sites even went as far as designing their entire contents on Exchange server. It was a valiant effort, but the truth is that Exchange server continues to remain a predominantly e-mail server, albeit a popular one. Exchange instant messaging and video conferencing never reached critical mass. And while Microsoft has a commendable market share of e-mail clients (mainly in the form of Outlook) its effort to win over the collaborative market has paid little dividend. Most people still consider Lotus Notes as the king when it comes to that.

As for instant messaging and video conferencing, Microsoft seems to have been tentative at best. With products such as NetMeeting and MSN Messenger, the reliance on an Exchange-based instant messaging and conferencing features have been greatly diminished. Then there is Microsofts Real-Time Communications Server and now the .Net platform has shifted strategies once again.

Microsoft realizes that most people still look at Exchange 2000 as just an e-mail server. Worse yet, many still have no incentive to upgrade from their 5.5 installations. The next revision of Exchange -- code-named Titanium -- is basically an upgrade of the current Exchange 2000, so there are no expectations of fancy features, at least for this revision. Knowing Microsoft, they will continue tirelessly to try and steal the collaborative market share by introducing new features with every release, but so far they havent had much success. Their efforts in attracting the database market with SQL Server 2000 have been more successful. Of course, they havent done so badly with their current Exchange and Outlook server and client platforms. Maybe being just a great e-mail product isn't so bad after all.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality every other month in his Reality Check column. Robert is Webmaster for TMCnet.com -- your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He is also the author of the recently published Financial Markets For The Rest Of Us. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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