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Microsoft begins testing Exchange 12

Software maker says server software has new unified messaging abilities and is easier to manage.

Microsoft said Wednesday that it has released the first test version of Exchange 12, the next iteration of its e-mail and calendar server software.

Among the new features Microsoft is touting are the ability to handle voicemail and faxes, improved manageability of the software for IT managers and a better Web-based mail client. As part of a push toward so-called unified messaging, Exchange users will also be able to use the telephone to access their e-mail and have it read to them by the computer.

This test version is being offered only to about 1,400 corporate customers, computer makers and others.

"We are on target to ship a second beta, probably in the middle of 2006, that will have additional features," said senior product manager Megan Kidd.

The software maker originally hoped to have the final version of the software on the market next year, but has been saying in recent weeks that the product may not ship until early 2007.

Microsoft has also said the product will work only with servers powered by 64-bit processors, though most new servers are expected to use such chips by the time Exchange 12 ships.

Microsoft is planning to split the Exchange 12 server software into various roles that can be installed on multiple physical servers or performed by a single machine.

The company is also adding a scripting tool that enables power users to write code to automate repeated tasks, such as building new e-mail accounts for each new employee. The tool is based on Monad, Microsoft's next-generation scripting shell and is the first product to incorporate Monad technology.

"In the past that was something you could do, but it was not that easy," Kidd said.

Beyond what's in the server software itself, Microsoft has also been increasing the number of add-on services it offers with Exchange. The move is part of a companywide push for services and follows the August acquisition of FrontBridge Technologies. Kidd said the company had nothing new to announce regarding Exchange 12 services.