Search giant Google has licensed Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync protocol for use with its Google Sync service implementation for the iPhone and Windows Mobile smartphone, which — as usual — was released in beta form earlier this month. According to Microsoft, Google took a patent license in order to implement its Exchange ActiveSync protocol on Google’s servers.

If you don’t know yet, Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync technology is a “communication protocol that enables mobile, “over-the-air” access to your e-mail messages, schedules, contacts, tasks lists, and other Exchange Server mailbox data.” In short, it is the culmination of Microsoft’s response when it finally woke up to the threat posed by RIM’s BlackBerry smartphones with its robust push mail solution a couple of years back.

Every Windows Mobile-based smartphone sold on the market today is natively capable of delivering push mail via Exchange ActiveSync. Implementation on other platforms includes Apple iPhone, which supports a more limited subset of the functionalities. Incidentally, Google’s synchronization software for the RIM BlackBerry does not rely on Exchange ActiveSync for synchronization.

Polarization of push mail technologies

While Microsoft claims that it has never attempted to make Exchange ActiveSync the de facto standard for push e-mail, the result is inevitable given its willingness to license the technology. In addition, the relative simplicity of the protocol plus its ability to work without a network operating center (NOC) can only be plus factors in its favor.

Indeed, the widespread adoption of Exchange ActiveSync by some of the largest smartphone makers and now Google can only lead to Microsoft’s Exchange Server becoming even more entrenched.

HTTP everything?

One aspect of implementing Exchange ActiveSync that is not immediately obvious to the layperson is the fact that it uses a very well-understood transport mechanism for transferring data. In a nutshell, Exchange ActiveSync works by encapsulating the commands and data within the HTTP protocol. The idea in itself is elegant: by leveraging on this common Web protocol, it becomes possible to forward and filter it via standard network firewalls. And since Outlook Web Access already involves forwarding the HTTP (or HTTPS) port from the firewall, no additional configuration is typically necessary.

Unfortunately, HTTP may be many things, but it is definitely not known to be data efficient. Comparatively, an Exchange ActiveSync-based solution can consume many times more traffic than a BlackBerry-based one. In addition, some detractors in the earlier days were against what they saw as yet another abuse of the HTTP protocol.

Does the difference still matter?

Whatever the case, Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync is here to stay. However, comparing RIM’s BlackBerry push with Exchange ActiveSync is really like comparing software specially tweaked in assembly language with, say, a Visual Basic application. The differences are real, with quite a few advantages in favor of RIM’s superior protocol.

With the proliferation of faster high-speed mobile wireless connectivity and unlimited data plans though, the practical differences are being gradually eroded toward insignificance. Though RIM has always embraced a minimalist approach toward data, it had to move with the flow and incorporate the option to download entire file attachments to the handheld. In such a context, there are hardly any differences with an Exchange ActiveSync implementation.

Moving ahead

Of course, the story is quite different when one goes overseas. Assuming one avoids data-intensive activities, such as downloading large file attachments, the difference in data tariffs at the end of the month can be quite astounding.

Moving ahead though, the reality is that push mail is now fully in the mainstream. Differences exist, especially among other less popular solutions such as Motorola’s Good Technology and Visto Mobile. In most cases, however, the only folks who still care will be administrators tasked with caring for an organization’s fleet of smartphones.

Paul Mah is an independent tech writer, covering a range of topics from enterprise IT to mobile technology. Several times a week, he also indulges in teaching IT-related topics at a local polytechnic. You can reach him via his contact page at Read his full bio and profile.