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Senior Editor

Users weigh Exchange mobile messaging

Feb 20, 20065 mins
Cellular NetworksMicrosoftMicrosoft Exchange

Wary network administrators are starting to evaluate the mobile-messaging capability rolled out by Microsoft via Exchange Server.

Microsoft’s long-awaited push e-mail offering promises to simplify enterprise messaging by leveraging the Exchange Server infrastructure already installed in a company. This approach eliminates the need for third-party software from such rivals as Good Technology, Intellisync and Research in Motion, or carrier-messaging services.

But administrators have concerns about whether Microsoft’s messaging can match the ease of use of RIM’s BlackBerry, as well as its network efficiency. Some also wonder when their current cellular carriers will offer Windows handhelds that can support the Microsoft messaging feature.

The Microsoft mobile messaging package consists of Exchange Server Service Pack 2 combined with the Messaging and Security Feature Pack now bundled with the first handheld devices running Windows Mobile 5.0. Dubbed by Microsoft as Direct Push, the combination can automatically send out new e-mail, contact and calendar information to a handheld device over a cellular network.

Treo 700w

Microsoft last week used the 3GSM World Congress in Spain to promote its latest messaging efforts, airing partnerships with service providers such as Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile and hardware vendors such as HP and Fujitsu Siemens.

Rivals try hard

Exchange sites are already deploying Service Pack 2, and some are talking with Microsoft and its carriers about small pilots. At the same time, rivals, including Good Technology, are trying to persuade these same sites to try alternatives, exploiting the uncertainty about RIM’s long-running legal battle over patent infringements.

Integris Health in Oklahoma City runs its corporate e-mail on Exchange, but uses BlackBerries to give about 120 senior managers mobile e-mail. IT Architect Bruce Alcock says the healthcare provider will be evaluating the Microsoft offering.

“We have some clinical applications that run on Palm or Windows Mobile devices, but not on the BlackBerries,” he says. “We’re looking to see what we can provide to combine e-mail and application access, but we don’t want the docs to have to carry two devices.”

The complexity at this stage is a bit baffling. As an example, Alcock says Palm’s new Treo 700w, which runs the needed Windows Mobile 5.0, seems to be available only through Verizon Wireless. But Integris’ mobile carrier is Cingular. “The real hassle is that it’s kind of a jigsaw puzzle that you have to put together,” he says.

Lifetime Products plans to start testing Exchange-based mobile messaging as soon as it can trial units from Cingular, according to John Bowden, the company’s CIO. The Clearfield, Utah, manufacturer makes metal and plastic home products, including tables, chairs and sheds.

The company has about 1,000 Exchange e-mail users worldwide. But Bowden expects only about 150 to 200 of them, mainly senior managers, will need the new capability. Until now, Lifetime was using the existing SMS-based messaging in Exchange: When a new e-mail shows up on Exchange Server, the server generates an SMS text message, which is sent to the user’s smart-phone. The message alerts the user to log on to Exchange for the new e-mail.

Bowden says this comparatively cumbersome technique worked fine, as long as carriers didn’t charge for SMS traffic. “In 2003, this was a zero-cost solution,” he says. “But now Cingular is charging for in-bound text messages.” The Exchange-based push e-mail would save some money.

BlackBerry users are fiercely loyal to the popular handhelds, but drawbacks make the new Microsoft approach worth investigating, according to network administrators, including Rich DeBrino, CIO for Compass Health, in Everett, Wash. The health provider has about 100 BlackBerry users, with Exchange as the corporate e-mail server.

“It’s a great e-mail device,[but]the BlackBerry makes a crappy phone,” DeBrino says. He thinks the new Windows Mobile devices could combine high-quality voice and mobile e-mail on a single device that would be managed as part of his Windows and Exchange infrastructure. “If we can do it all with Exchange, and do it clean, that would be so much easier,” he says.

Oregon State University is weighing a number of mobile-messaging options. The Corvallis school has about 150 BlackBerry users. But it’s set to pilot Good Technology’s messaging software, with a handful of Treo 700w handhelds, in addition to evaluating push e-mail in Exchange, says Tom Groves, e-mail systems engineer with the network services department.

“What Microsoft is promoting is excellent,” he says. “It would be a real benefit not to have an additional server to run, having an integrated [Windows] GUI, and it would make licensing easier, and I’m pretty sure cheaper.”

While he says BlackBerries are easy for new users to work with, Groves adds that he expects the rival manufacturers working with Windows Mobile 5.0 will shortly match them in features, ease of use and overall quality.

Oregon State University CIO Jon Dolan likes the prospect of being able to exploit the industrial-strength Exchange infrastructure at the university. “We cluster our front-end servers, and we have a storage-area network on the back end,” he says. “So we have Exchange in a more redundant, fault-tolerant configuration than our BlackBerry Enterprise Server.”

Exchange users are going to put Microsoft’s “BlackBerry Killer” through its paces over the coming months and find out just how effective the Microsoft engineers have been in meeting enterprise requirements for mobile messaging.

Evaluating Microsoft’s mobile messaging

Possible benefits:Possible drawbacks:
Simpler deployment (no third-party server software needed).Not as easy to use as BlackBerry and others.
Lower cost (no additional client licenses needed).Incremental support costs, if any, unknown at present.
Growing breadth of handhelds running Windows Mobile 5.0.Network efficiency may be less than rivals, leading to increased data minutes.
Use clustering and failover of Exchange servers for reliable messaging. 
Device and user management via Exchange plus Windows Mobile 5.0.
Synchronize Exchange contact and calendar data.
Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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