Beta Man

Exchange 12: Unified Messaging Rules

Check all your voice, text and fax messages through Exchange 12.

[Beta Man has gone undercover to bring you the best, non-biased reviews of Microsoft beta products. Don Jones, formerly Beta Man, has morphed into Mr. Roboto , which you can read every month in Redmond magazine. -- Ed. ]

With all the architectural changes and new features coming in Exchange 12 (E12), the biggest deal by far has got to be unified messaging. So what is it? Unified messaging means you can keep all your messages -- voice, text and fax -- in a single, centralized inbox in the E12 mailbox store.

E12's unified messaging starts with built-in support for SIP networks (the protocol used to power VoIP solutions). Essentially, you can give E12 a phone extension just like anyone at their desk.

Once you've connected your phone system to E12, you can configure it as the destination for voicemail and fax messages. You can use Active Directory -- the Exchange address book -- as your corporate phone directory. Exchange even provides an automated attendant, so callers can "talk" to Exchange to look up extensions, transfer to appropriate departments and so on. Even small businesses will be able to set up internal VoIP phone systems with "big company" functionality -- all in their mail server.

Microsoft Exchange 12
Version Reviewed: Beta 1
Current Status: Beta 2 (mid-2006)
Expected Release: Late 2006/early 2007

Anywhere Access
E12 will also give you some sexy new hooks for accessing those unified mail messages. For example, the new Outlook Web Access (OWA) has built-in capabilities for accessing voicemail messages, as well as regular e-mail messages.

Don't want to listen to voicemail through your PC speakers? No problem. You can have E12 call you at another phone number or extension to play back your mail. This is the perfect solution if you're checking messages in a public place like an airport. You can also jot down notes within the voicemail message. This lets you copy down phone numbers as you hear them. You can then search these notes in Exchange, which makes it much easier to find a particular voicemail message later.

Speaking of OWA, it gets a major overhaul in E12 -- with tons of new asynchronous client-side functionality like auto-complete when typing addresses. This is the biggest thing most OWA users currently miss over regular Outlook. The upshot is that OWA will behave more like the full version of Outlook. Of course, OWA works best with Internet Explorer 6 or 7. There is a "lite" mode for other browsers, but it generally provides a much less-rich experience.

This is disappointing. Microsoft claims it's too difficult to provide a rich experience on a wide range of browsers, but sites like Google's Gmail generally disprove that claim. The reality is that Microsoft wants to push its own browser, not invest resources in providing you with a better experience with whichever browser you prefer.

Given IE's shoddy security record, it would be nice to see Microsoft taking the high road and acknowledge that other browsers are just as deserving of full-featured OWA support as IE.

Say What?
E12 will also introduce another unified messaging feature called Outlook Voice Access (OVA). By dialing into Exchange from a normal telephone, your users can use voice commands to access their mail and calendar. Remember, the E12 server essentially becomes an extension of your phone network.

E12 embeds Microsoft Speech Server technology. This provides both text-to-speech and speech recognition capabilities so E12 can read back your e-mail and appointments. You can tell it to delete messages, accept appointments and so on.

Better for Users
This new version of Exchange will probably provide more user-centric features than any other prior version. The major overhauls make unified messaging easier and beef up OWA enough that it may finally convince even die-hard OWA haters to settle down and start accessing e-mail via the Web. That's good news for admins, who find remote e-mail access much easier to configure and secure via OWA than any other approach.

It's also nice to see Microsoft putting some play into Web services by exposing E12 functionality that way.

E12 is worth a good, hard look. You may need some new hardware (remember, it only runs on x64 machines), but it's shaping up to be a scalable, feature-filled messaging center for any sized business.

About the Author

Although Beta Man is anonymous, please feel free to contact him/her about this review or other betas.

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