I use Microsoft Exchange for mail and calendaring every working day. The product has some obvious strengths but also glaring weaknesses.
Anyone using Exchange in a disconnected environment (that is, not in an office with a high-performance local area network (Lan) or wide area network) will know of the constant minor delays as the client calls the server.
It's bad enough on a 2MB cable modem connection, let alone a slower - 256K or so - 'broadband' access point. 56K is practically unusable.
You are often forced to wait for seconds at a time for the client to link to the server. But isn't Outlook supposed to be a productivity tool?
The latency problem is exacerbated because Outlook locks up so it is impossible to work on another Outlook-oriented task while you are waiting. This is a major problem for those who, like me, 'live in their mail client'.
Why does Exchange behave like this? During the net boom, irrationally exuberant types (usually Americans) assumed that bandwidth was plentiful and would become practically free and universal.
Microsoft designed Exchange on just such an assumption of ubiquitous Lan-class connections.
At last, however, sense has prevailed and crucial, though incremental, improvements are being made in Exchange Server 2003.
Cutting system response times and delays should improve end-user productivity, which means happy business managers.
Outlook 2003 relies on a cached copy of a user's mailbox, reducing traffic between server and client, in turn reducing latency and server load per user.
There is also no need to download the entire message. Instead, users can choose to download only message headers.
Synchronisation between Exchange and Outlook, which Microsoft has admitted is "often painfully slow", has also been improved; the underlying communication protocol has apparently been rewritten from the ground up.
The focus on improving the experience for lower bandwidth connections has also been applied to Pocket PC, Pocket PC Phone Edition and Windows-powered smartphones.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Office Outlook Web Access, the firm's browser-based client alternative, offers access to all Exchange functions, rather than just a subset.
Another neat enhancement in 2003 is the ability to store common searches in folders so the system doesn't hang up.
All of these improvements will underpin Microsoft's workflow and integration strategy, for products such as Microsoft Customer Relationship Management, offering access to back-end systems either via Office applications or directly through the Outlook client.
People question whether software upgrades are really necessary. In this case the usability and performance tweaks alone could justify an upgrade.
Of course, this assumes that Microsoft Exchange and Outlook 2003 perform as claimed.
From an IT manager or systems integrator perspective, Microsoft has delivered other improvements.
Exchange 2003, hosted on Windows Server 2003, offers a platform for server consolidation by supporting eight-way Intel servers.
For those shops not pursuing a wall-to-wall Microsoft strategy, alternatives are available from both the open-source and proprietary worlds, such as Ximian (just acquired by Novell) and Lotus Workplace Messaging.
For many organisations, however, Outlook and Exchange remain de facto corporate standards.
Users in the current economy need a good reason to upgrade existing systems. Microsoft is potentially providing one with this release, so VARs, integrators and idependent software vendors should take note.
There should also be upselling opportunities as Microsoft builds its Office system community.
My company leases Exchange through ASP-One. We have asked for an upgrade to Exchange Server 2003 as soon as possible.
The thing is, sometimes tweaks can be far more effective than wholesale changes in generating demand for products and services.
Focus on usability and real customer working patterns and the rest can fall into place. Microsoft and the industry at large should take note.
James Governor is principal analyst at RedMonk.
www.red-monk.com (020) 7254 7371.
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