LAS VEGAS, Nevada--The first version is barely out the door, but Microsoft is already looking ahead to future versions of its Exchange Server plus add-on programs that will mesh the LAN-based messaging server closer with its Internet strategy.
Exchange was originally conceived as a competitor to Lotus Development's Notes groupware. Both products give corporate workgroups a way to share information and collaborate by linking them via private LANs or WANs. But while Microsoft spent nearly two years developing Exchange, corporations turned their attention to much cheaper software that can run over the Internet to perform the same functions.
Other groupware and messaging vendors, particularly Lotus, have already scrambled to incorporate Internet capabilities in their products. Now, Microsoft is following suit.
In the next 12 to 18 months, the company plans to integrate native support for HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) into its Exchange client and server, said Greg Lobdell, Microsoft's group product manager for messaging and Internet services. Exchange will also eventually support ActiveX Controls, Microsoft's recently unveiled framework for creating small, single-purpose applications that can be plugged into other Windows applications.
The capabilities mean that, in addition to data stored in Exchange public folders, users will be able to receive and interact with any data that can be viewed from a Web browser. This would allow other HTML-capable email clients, such as Netscape Communications' Navigator, to receive messages from Exchange users.
Users will also eventually be able to navigate directly into the Web from within the Exchange client, part of Microsoft's previously stated goal of merging browsing capabilities directly into the Windows operating system.
As a step in that direction, the company has already announced plans to release a modified Windows Explorer, called the Internet Add-on, later this year that allows browsing of local directories as well as Web pages. The Exchange client will build on that even further by using the same code base as Internet Explorer and the Internet Add-on, according to Lobdell.
"To be able to browse information of any kind, anywhere. That's where we're going with Explorer," he said.
Microsoft will also soon enter beta testing on its NNTP Connector (Network News Transport Protocol) and Web Connector software, both of which it plans to ship in the second half of this year.
The NNTP Connector will let Exchange Servers selectively receive feeds from Usenet newsgroups, the Internet's equivalent of Exchange discussion forums. Unlike standard Usenet news clients, though, Exchange users get email notification of news messages that contain selected keywords instead of having to sift through screens of threaded discussions.
The Exchange Web Connector, which Microsoft first demonstrated in December, will allow users to access email and public discussions via the Internet through Web browsers.
Both connector products are expected to cost about the same as Microsoft's existing Internet email gateway that sells for $377, Lobdell said.
Microsoft's coupling of Exchange and the Internet closely resembles that of Lotus, which offers similar products called InterNotes Web Publisher and InterNotes News for connecting to Usenet and the Web. Version 4 of the Notes client has an integrated Web browser, and Lotus plans to support Web protocols natively in a future version of its server.