Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Microsoft outlined on Wednesday a new future for its Exchange server, effectively turning the software into what it hopes will be a one-stop shop for e-mail, voice mail and faxes.
The software maker said the next version, code-named Exchange 12, will let workers access their voice mail from their PC and allow them to dial in to the server via telephone and get voice mail, as well as calendar and e-mail data.
"Your Exchange Server is, in essence, your voice mail server," Corporate Vice President Dave Thompson said in an interview. So-called unified messaging has long been talked about but has typically been cumbersome, often requiring compromises or the bolting together of several pieces of software.
In addition to adding fax and voice mail abilities, Exchange 12 is absorbing a number of features Microsoft had planned to release in an add-on called Exchange Edge Services that was due to ship this year. The product was designed to help address the growing challenges of weeding out viruses and spam and ensuring that e-mails are properly handled to comply with various regulations.
Microsoft has now scuttled the plans for Edge Services, although some of the antispam features will come in the Service Pack 2 update to Exchange 2003, which is due in the second half of this year. For instance, SP2 will support Microsoft's Sender ID technology for verifying that an e-mail's sender is who they say they are. Service Pack 2 will also add a number of features to improve access from mobile devices, such as allowing synchronizations to be initiated by the server and the ability to remotely destroy data on a device that has been lost.
Other technology, particularly improvements in terms of policy and management, will wait until Exchange 12, Thompson said.
Microsoft is not saying exactly when Exchange 12 will arrive but said the company can keep pace with its historical record of releasing a new version every three to four years.
"We're on track for that," said Kim Akers, a senior director in Microsoft's Exchange unit.
Since Exchange 2003 shipped in Fall 2003, a release date of 2006 or 2007 is likely, Microsoft said.
The company still has work to do in getting users to upgrade from its prior products—Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000. Six months ago, 40 percent of companies were still using Exchange 5.5, Thompson said. Now that number is 30 percent, and the company hopes that it will be just 20 percent in another six months' time. The company has also faced some competition from open-source competitors.
Exchange has emerged as a key component of Microsoft's business. In addition to being tightly tied to the company's mainstay Office business, Exchange itself crossed the $1 billion annual revenue mark last year.
While e-mail has become a critical component of most businesses, the software needed to manage the communications has struggled to keep pace. Microsoft has achieved the goal of high availability, Thompson said, but the software is not as easy to manage as it should be.
"High-availability e-mail is still too complex," he said.
One of the tactics Microsoft is adopting with Exchange 12 is the notion of roles. In a small business, Exchange might handle all the tasks associated with receiving, organizing, distributing and storing e-mail. Large companies, though, may want individual servers that handle only one or two of these tasks, and Exchange 12 will allow these roles to be automatically assigned and the work separated.
Among the other features planned for Exchange 12 are support for 64-bit computing and a "smart meeting picker" that can look at a number of people's schedules and choose the best possible meeting times based on a variety of criteria.
Today Exchange is sold in two varieties—a standard edition and an enterprise edition. Microsoft said it is too soon to discuss pricing or how Exchange 12 will be packaged.
Microsoft charges $699 per server for the standard edition of Exchange 2003 and $3,999 for the enterprise edition, which is aimed at companies with more than 5,000 employees. In addition, Microsoft charges a $67 fee either for each person or each device that is accessing Exchange.
Given its arrival date, Exchange 12 is likely to be the version sold when Microsoft ships Longhorn, the next version of Windows, which is slated to arrive on the desktop in 2006 and on servers in 2007. However, Thompson said that although Exchange 12 will clearly run on Longhorn, its features are not tied to any advances coming with Longhorn. At one time, Microsoft spoke of an array of products being tightly coupled with the release of Longhorn, though that vision has evolved as the company has scaled back some planned features of the new operating system.
Microsoft had originally planned to introduce an all-new storage schema into Exchange in a release code-named Kodiak. The technology was essentially similar to the WinFS technology that Microsoft originally planned to introduce in Longhorn. However, Microsoft has pushed back WinFS and now hopes to have it in beta form when Longhorn ships. It has not said when WinFS might find its way into the operating system. Exchange 12 will continue to use the same database mechanism that is used in its current incarnation.