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SolutionBase: Using a Microsoft SmartPhone to Access Exchange Server

While your users are on the go, they'd probably like to be able to access their email from the road. Here's how you can configure a Microsoft SmartPhone to access your Exchange Server.

One of the primary features offered by Microsoft's SmartPhone is Internet connectivity. You can use this connectivity to check your E-mail while you're on the go. Although many cellular service providers will provide you with an E-mail address when you order a service plan for your phone, it's usually more beneficial to be able to check your primary E-mail account instead. In this article, I will show you some techniques for being able to remotely access your E-mail from an Exchange Server.

Accessing Your Exchange Mail Remotely

Before I get started, I want to explain that there are two different types of Microsoft SmartPhones, and the method that you will use to access your Exchange mail on the go will depend on which type of phone you've got.

The first type of SmartPhone looks like the one that's shown in Figure A. This type of SmartPhone (previously known as the Stinger Phone), looks a lot like any other cell phone. If you have this type of SmartPhone, you will access your company's Exchange Server by using a feature known as Outlook Mobile Access (OMA).

Figure A

This is what most people are talking about when they mention a Microsoft SmartPhone.

The other type of SmartPhone looks more like a PDA than a phone. This type of phone contains a fully integrated Pocket PC. Since this type of phone has a larger screen and a more robust Web browser, you can access your Exchange mail through Outlook Web Access (OWA). You do however, also have the option of using OMA instead.

OMA uses a text only interface, and therefore offers faster performance on cellular devices. The reason why I recommend using OWA, even though its slower, is because you can get the full Outlook experience through your phone's Web browser. OWA offers many features, such as spell check, that you can't get through OMA.

Outlook Web Access

As I explained earlier, if you are using a PDA style SmartPhone, the method of choice for accessing your E-mal remotely is through OWA. OWA is nice for several reasons. First, OWA is automatically enabled when you install Exchange Server 2003. Second, OWA isn't just for PDA style SmartPhones. You can access OWA from PDAs, laptops, or from most other devices that offer a full function Web browser. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, OWA is designed to look and feel like Microsoft Outlook. You can do almost anything through OWA that you would be able to do through Outlook.

If you look at Figure B, you will see how OWA appears through Internet Explorer. I have removed certain things from the screen capture in an effort to protect my privacy, but the screen capture should still give you a good idea of what OWA looks like.

Figure B

This is what the Outlook Web Access screen looks like.

Since OWA is configured and enabled by default, accessing it is simple. All you have to do is open a Web browser and enter the OWA URL. By default, the URL is your server's fully qualified domain name or IP address, followed by Exchange. For example, if your Exchange Server's IP address was 192.168.0.0, then the OWA URL would be http://192.168.0.0/exchange.

Keep in mind though that although Exchange Server does automatically enable OWA, it does not guarantee that you will be able to access OWA from outside of your organization. For OWA to be externally accessible, the server must have a publicly accessible IP address and your corporate firewall must allow traffic to reach the Exchange Server over TCP port 80.

Before you go and open a port on your firewall though, I should point out that there are security risks associated with allowing Web traffic to directly access your Exchange Server. Microsoft recommends setting up an OWA front end / back end configuration as a way of preventing malicious packets from reaching your Exchange databases. Establishing such a configuration is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read about it in this article.

Outlook Mobile Access

If you have the non-PDA version of the Microsoft SmartPhone, then you won't be able to use OWA on your phone for a couple of reasons. First, the phone uses a watered down version of Windows Mobile 2003. One of the areas in which the operating system is watered down is its Web browser. The SmartPhone is designed to use WAP (Web Application Protocol) to access Web sites coded in WML format. The phone has trouble with normal Web sites. The other reason why the SmartPhone won't work with OWA is because of the limited screen resolution. The SmartPhone has such a tiny screen that it would be really impractical to try to display an OWA screen.

Just because OWA won't work on this type of phone doesn't mean that SmartPhone users are out in the cold though. Exchange includes a second Web interface that is similar to OWA, but that is specifically designed for SmartPhones. This interface is called Outlook Mobile Access, or OMA.

Like OWA, you aren't just limited to accessing OMA through SmartPhones. You can access OMA from pretty much any Web browser. However, OMA uses a text only interface, and offers the bare minimum necessities for interacting with Exchange Server. You can see what an OMA screen looks like in Figure C.

Figure C

This is what an OMA screen looks like.

Unlike OWA, OMA is not automatically configured and enabled. OMA is either enabled or disabled at the global level. You can't enable or disable OMA at the server level or at the information store level. However, you can control which users are or are not allowed to use OMA. I'll show you how to do that a bit later on.

To enable OMA, open the Exchange System Manager and navigate to Global Settings | Mobile Services. Right click on the Mobile Services container and select the Properties command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, you will see the Mobile Services Properties sheet.

This screen contains several check boxes. The first three check boxes have to do with ActiveSync and the last two have to do with OMA. To enable OMA, simply select the Enable Outlook Mobile Access check box. I also recommend selecting the Enable Unsupported Devices check box.

As you probably know, Microsoft maintains a hardware compatibility list for Windows Server. The idea behind the hardware compatibility list is that if a system is listed on it, then Microsoft guarantees that Windows will run on that system. If a system is not listed on the hardware compatibility list, then there is still a chance that Windows will run on the hardware, but Microsoft isn't going to support it.

The Enable Unsupported Devices option in Exchange is kind of like the hardware compatibility list for mobile devices. Microsoft maintains a list of mobile devices that are guaranteed to work with OMA. If a device isn't listed on this list, then it may or may not work with OMA. If you select the Enable Unsupported Devices check box, then Exchange will give you the freedom to try to connect to OMA from any device that you like. Just remember that if you try to connect to OMA with an unsupported device and it doesn't work, then you can't turn to Microsoft for help. You can access the list of compatible mobile devices at Microsoft's Web site.

The other mobile feature built into Exchange Server 2003 is ActiveSync. If you frequently use a laptop or a PDA, you are probably used to working offline and then re-synchronizing everything the next time that you connect to the network. ActiveSync is a technology that allows mobile devices to stay in synch with the Exchange organization without having to be cradled.

The way that ActiveSync works is that the Exchange server sends out an up to date notification (UTD). This message is sent to the cellular provider and relayed to the mobile device in the form of an SMS message. The SMS message contains a GUID number pertaining to the user's mailbox. If the GUID matches the device's current GUID, it means that the device is in sync with the Exchange server. If the GUIDS differ, then the SmartPhone will request a synchronization. The whole process happens automatically, behind the scenes, without user or administrator involvement.

ActiveSync ensures that mobile users always have an up to date view of their Exchange mailbox. Every time a new message is delivered to a mobile user's mailbox, an event sink is called, which launches the process that I just described, ensuring that the mobile user's mailbox is always up to date.

As I mentioned earlier, the first three check boxes on the Mobile Information Server Properties Sheet are related to ActiveSync. The first check box is Enable User Initiated Synchronization. Selecting this check box allows mobile users to keep their mobile devices in synch with the Exchange Server. If you deselect this check box, the entire ActiveSync process will fail.

The second check box is Enable Up-To-Date Notifications. Up To Date notifications are messages sent by Exchange to mobile devices containing a GUID number. If you want to use ActiveSync, this check box should be selected. Otherwise, automatic synchronization won't work correctly.

The last option is Notification to User Specified SMTP Addresses. This option allows users to use their own wireless service provider to receive SMTP notifications. If you select this option, you will have to specify a mobile carrier for each wireless service provider. You can accomplish this by right clicking on the Mobile Services container in the Exchange System Manager and selecting the New Mobile Carrier command from the resulting shortcut menu.

Earlier, I mentioned that when you enable the mobile services, that you are enabling it globally for the entire Exchange organization. Having said that though, there is a way for you to control who is and who is not allowed to use the mobile services.

You can control access to the mobile services through the Active Directory Users and Computers console. To do so, right click on the user or users that you want to regulate and select the Properties command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, you will see the user's properties sheet. Now, just select the Exchange Features tab. The Exchange Features tab allows you to enable or disable Outlook Mobile Access, user initiated synchronization, and up-to-date notifications on a per user basis.

Some Other Tricks

Now that I have shown you how to remotely access your Exchange Server, I want to show you a couple of other useful tricks for accessing your mail on the go. The reason why these tricks are useful is because the techniques that I just showed you are useless if your organization does not have OWA or OMA enabled. My own network is a good example of this.

Where I live, the local phone company has a monopoly on telephone, cable television, and Internet service. It is impossible to service from another provider, and the phone company has a policy against providing static IP addresses. Normally, if you can't get a static IP address, running an Exchange Server is out of the question because there is no way for your server to receive Internet mail.

I got around this issue by hosting my Web site and my E-mail with an ISP. I then use a POP component on my Exchange Server to automatically download messages from each of my hosted mailboxes and place them in a corresponding Exchange mailbox.

As I said, the fact that my phone company won't allow me to have a static IP address means that I have no external access to my Exchange Server through OWA or OMA. I am also unable to connect to my ISP and download my messages because my Exchange Server is automatically downloading messages every two minutes. If I were to try to connect to my ISP remotely, odds are that my mailbox would appear empty, even though there are messages waiting for me on my Exchange Server

Whether you have a situation like mine, or you work in an office in which OWA and OMA access is forbidden, there is a way to beat the system. Even though you can't remotely access your network, your network can access you. Let me explain.

Most cellular providers will provide you with an E-mail address that is automatically linked to your phone. For example, I have a Sprint phone, and Sprint provides me with an @sprintpcs.com address.

What you can do is to have Outlook's vacation mail feature forward messages to your cell phone while you are out of the office. You can access this feature by selecting the Out of Office Assistant command from Outlook's Tools menu. From there, you simply have to configure a rule that forwards all of your mail to your cell phone's E-mail address.

This technique works well, but you have to remember to tell Outlook that you are out of the office. Although I initially used this technique when I got my SmartPhone, I eventually decided to subscribe to a service that Sprint PCS offers, called PCS Business Connection. Although this service is only available to Sprint PCS customers, I'm sure that other cellular providers offer similar services.

The idea is that this service gives you access to your mail and to your documents while you are on the go. The service comes with a downloadable component consisting of an agent for your PC and a driver for your SmartPhone. The agent monitors Outlook for any new E-mail messages, contacts, or appointments. Every half hour (by default), the agent contacts your cell phone and performs a synchronization. This synchronization delivers new messages, appointments, and contacts to you wherever you are. It also transmits any E-mails that you have composed while on the go.

At the time that this article was written, the Business Connection service cost $20 per month and includes unlimited Internet access from your SmartPhone. In my case, I was already paying for unlimited Internet access, so the rate was only $10 per month. Sprint PCS also makes an enterprise version of this service. The enterprise version works in a similar manner to the consumer version, except that instead of requiring an agent to be installed on workstations, the software gets installed directly onto the Exchange Server.

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