Boasting unified messaging features such as speech-to-text transcription of voice mails, the production version of Exchange Server 2010 is due in the second half of this year.
Microsoft took the covers off the first pieces of the next version of its e-mail software on Wednesday, releasing test versions of Exchange Server 2010 and Outlook Web Access.
The company plans to release Exchange Server 2010 in the second half of this year. The rest of Office is due in the first half of 2010, with limited test releases beginning the third quarter of this year. Outlook 2010 will come as part of the rest of the Office suite, though it's unclear when the next version of Outlook Mobile will be available.
Until this version of Exchange, companies seeking to archive their e-mail centrally have had to rely on third-party software. That costly proposition has hurt adoption, and according to Osterman Research, only 28% of companies currently have central e-mail archives. Exchange 2010 will include integrated archiving and multi-mailbox search capabilities at no extra cost, making it easier for companies to, for example, comply with e-discovery requirements. But Microsoft will have to be careful not to alienate third-party archiving vendors such as Symantec and Quest.
Exchange 2010 will power a number of new features, including the ability to view e-mail conversations in threaded form a la Gmail, and a button to ignore e-mail threads. Exchange 2007 introduced some unified messaging features, and Exchange 2010 will build on that with speech-to-text transcription of voice mails as well as customized voice-mail menus.
Outlook Web Access -- and likely the other versions of Outlook, though Microsoft wouldn't confirm -- will include an instant messaging client compatible with Microsoft Office Communications Server and Live Messenger. Microsoft will offer APIs to allow other third-party IM clients to work in Outlook Web Access.
A feature called MailTips will be "like having X-ray vision into your e-mail before you send it," Julia White, Microsoft's director of Exchange product management, said in an interview. Before e-mails are sent, a bit of text near the top of the e-mail client will give senders additional information to prevent them from sending unwarranted or unnecessary e-mails, warning them about how many people are on a distribution list, that the e-mail is headed for someone outside of the sender's organization, and whether someone has an out-of-office notification up.
Other new user features in Exchange 2010 and Outlook Web Access include easier calendar sharing, an infinite scroll instead of page-by-page views of e-mails in Outlook Web Access, and the ability to send text messages to and from Outlook, Outlook Web Access, and Outlook Mobile.
Though they will be released at different times, the user interfaces across Outlook, Outlook Web Access, and Outlook Mobile will become more and more consistent. For example, previously, when someone sent an e-mail, automatic address completion information was stored locally, so if someone sent an e-mail to a new co-worker with Outlook, and then tried to e-mail the same person from Outlook Web Access, auto-complete wouldn't work. Now, that data will be stored centrally and auto-complete will work across Outlook clients.
The company will continue offering Outlook Web Access Lite -- and fewer features -- for "legacy" browsers, though Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer will now power a "premium" Web experience in a departure from the current version of Outlook Web Access, which is more powerful with IE than other browsers.
In announcing progress of Live@edu in January, Microsoft also said that Exchange 2010 would include content filtering features for administrators, message tracking to confirm e-mail delivery, the ability for servers to stay up while moving mailboxes between them, a new Web interface for Exchange administrators, and an improved ability to manage and edit distribution lists. Other new features include better performance regardless of the type of storage Exchange uses, and simpler disaster recovery.
There's also new role-based administration, which means that Exchange administrators can delegate responsibility for some non-IT tasks to non-IT workers. For example, human resources managers could update employee information, the legal department could handle e-discovery and audits, and employees could create their own distribution lists.
Exchange 2010 has been heavily tested already. There are now about 5 million users of Microsoft's Outlook Live@edu program, which is a beta test of the multitenant, cloud-based version of Exchange 2010. That number is up from 3.5 million just at the beginning of this year. Microsoft also is testing Exchange Server externally with a few hundred customers, and is using Exchange 2010 as a production e-mail server for "thousands" of Microsoft employees.