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Exchange to get new features

Code-named Osmium, the new version of Microsoft Exchange will have more storage capacity but may be missing key messaging support.

Microsoft (MSFT) will focus on strengthening scalability and Internet protocol support in the next release of Exchange, code-named Osmium, according to sources close to the company.

Osmium will include much-clamored-for message storage expansion, boosting Exchange's storage capacity from 16 gigabytes to 16 terabytes, sources say.

But another feature promised for the Osmium release, support for IMAP4 (Internet Message Access Protocol), may be in jeopardy. Several analysts familiar with Microsoft's plans suggest the IMAP4 work at Microsoft has been slow going and the support may not be ready in time for Osmium's planned second-half 1997 release.

Among the protocol's more useful features is support for storing email messages on both server and client machines at the same time with the two stores working in synchrony.

"IMAP4 [integration] is proving difficult for all of the developers," said Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research. He said it remained unclear whether Microsoft will have finished work on the protocol in time for the next release. Lotus Development is also planning to support IMAP4 in the next release of its Domino server groupware, which competes with Exchange.

Microsoft product manager David Malcolm would not comment on the IMAP4 development efforts.

Microsoft is also working to enhance support for LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol). It will add "write" capabilities to let users edit and add to their directories. Currently only systems administrators can make such modifications.

"LDAP is one of the areas that really need some work. Right now there isn't much native client support," said Hal Hostetler, an Exchange user and a senior engineer at KVOA, a Phoenix-based television station.

"I'm hoping that they are working on better ways to migrate from the Exchange client to Outlook," added Hostetler.

In the Osmium time frame, Microsoft will also enhance Exchange client access software, including its Outlook and Schedule+ clients. In the current release, Outlook cannot access calendars created with Schedule+. Microsoft will correct that, and will add Web access to Schedule+, said sources close to the company.

Analysts said Exchange's future beyond the Osmium release appears to in flux, as the groupware market undergoes sweeping changes due to the impact of the Internet.

Confusion over the similarity of features in Exchange and Microsoft Commercial Internet System (MCIS) mail and news servers has prompted Microsoft to clarify plans to develop a common technology base for both MCIS and Exchange.

By 1998, Microsoft said both products will use the same core messaging technology. A white paper describing the changes is posted to Microsoft's Web site.

Malcolm said it is still undetermined whether MCIS, formerly code-named Normandy, will continue as a separate product, or will be folded into a single combined product bearing the Exchange label. However, he said Exchange will remain a key part of BackOffice.

"In 1998, the functionality that has been offered in MCIS for network operators and ISPs (Internet service providers) will be incorporated into the Exchange server," said Malcolm. "Exchange will remain the messaging component of the BackOffice platform. It will [continue] to be that as we move forward."

David Marshak, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group says Microsft's strategy for Exchange has been in constant revision since the product's introduction.

"Users keep hearing rumors that Exchange is not strategic to Microsoft," Marshak said. Exchange sales tend to be "post-NT sales" fueled by the advantages of tight integration between the products, he said.

The product has also had a hard time overcoming the reputation it earned when the first version debuted about a year ago, two years behind schedule and missing some key features, Marshak said.

Exchange was originally billed as the "killer app" that would compel corporate customers to purchase the NT servers. It now appears that the corporate embrace of NT is fueling Exchange sales.

Microsoft is also preparing to release a minor service pack update to Exchange 5.0 before the quarter is out, according to Malcolm, who declined to specify the features of the service pack.