(TECHNOLOGY EVANGELIST) by Benjamin J. Higginbotham, Director of New Technology, <TechnologyEvangelist.com> <benjaminhigginbotham@technologyevangelist.com>

I know everyone seems to think that Google is going to start eating into Microsoft Office, but I think it's going to be consuming the sales of Microsoft's flagship communications product first: Microsoft Exchange.

Google recently released IMAP support for GMail which allows users to keep their mail clients and mobile devices in sync with the GMail servers much the same way Exchange server does with the MAPI protocol. Today GMail is no match for Exchange, but by adding IMAP support they are one step closer to a full Exchange server replacement.

With Microsoft Exchange Server business users can keep their mailbox, contacts and calendars in sync between multiple computers running Outlook as well as mobile devices that support Exchange Active Sync (or EAS). In addition the EAS clients get access to push e-mail meaning that as soon as the message hits the Exchange server and is processed, it will be pushed to the users mobile device for delivery rather than scanning for messages every 15 minutes (for example). All of these Exchange server features are great and valuable in a business setting, but many of these features are not supported on non-Outlook mail clients and mobile devices that don't have EAS support are out of luck. In addition, Exchange is scary expensive when compared to other servers such as Merak or Communigate Pro.

IMAP is the first step in replacing Exchange server and Google probably knows this. Part of the IMAP protocol is something called IMAP Idle which keeps a server connection open allowing for push e-mail to devices that support it. IMAP Idle is the next step in the path for Google to replace Exchange. The iPhone supports push e-mail to/from Yahoo! e-mail via IMAP Idle but for some reason ignores IMAP Idle on other servers that support it such as Merak, Communigate or even Exchange. Other mobile applications such as FlexMail and ChatterEmail support IMAP Idle for Windows Mobile and Palm devices. Desktop clients such as Thunderbird and the new version of Mail.app found in Leopard will also include IMAP Idle support. With these IMAP Idle clients on mobile devices and computers we're able to get instant e-mail notification the moment the message hits the server, much the same way you do with Exchange and Outlook but at a fraction of the price or in the case of GMail, for free! That is, for free once GMail supports IMAP Idle.

We've tackled push e-mail support, but what about calendar and contacts? There's an open standard that's called SyncML which should take care of this nicely. SyncML allows the two-way synchronization of calendar, contact and task data from a handheld and computer or possibly from an online service provider such as Google. Many Symbian devices already support SyncML and rumor is that Palm will be dropping hotsync in favor of SyncML in their next OS due out the 12th of never (I saw this rumor on Engadget in 2005 so, uh, yeah). There are Windows Mobile add-ons that should also support SyncML. It would be possible to add a contact to a SyncML enabled handset and that contact would auto-sync back to Google which would also auto-sync back to the desktop app. SyncML also has a bunch of other features to facilitate backup options and syncing of other media objects which would in theory allow this service to end up being more powerful than what Exchange offers today.

At this stage Google only needs to implement IMAP Idle and SyncML to replace a very large portion of what Exchange offers. Some of the very few things that would not be supported are Active Directory synchronization which in a pure web world won't matter too much (all that login info could be done using a Google login) and multiple colors for messages (MAPI supports many different color flags and IMAP only supports flag on or off but no color). The biggest hurdle has already been achieved, now it's up to Google to keep it going. With Google Apps for business this becomes a much more powerful solution that's remote, offers almost all of the same functionality as Exchange, requires little to no IT staff to maintain it and since it's based on open standards has the ability to run on just about any device, oh yeah and a business can control the user accounts too (as opposed to the free version).

There's one final step that's missing which I have yet to figure out. I read over on WMExperts that Microsoft is releasing their Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 (yes, that's the actual title) which will allow provisioning of mobile devices remotely much like a Blackberry. I'm not sure I see Google trying to tackle this beast. Will Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 be the saving grace for Microsoft Exchange Server, or will the tie between the two products be too weak and we'll end up with Google Apps controlled by Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008? Even so, if Google did support IMAP Idle and SyncML would you or your company ever consider breaking from an Exchange environment?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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