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A kinder, gentler Exchange

Microsoft scraps version 4.5 of its Microsoft Exchange Server and will instead deliver a more Web-friendly release early next year.

Bowing to requests by customers, Microsoft (MSFT) has scrapped version 4.5 of its groupware product, the Microsoft Exchange Server, and will instead deliver a more Web-friendly release early next year.

Exchange 4.5 was scheduled for release this month. Instead, the software titan is moving ahead with Exchange 5.0, which today was launched into a wide beta test. The product is slated to come to market in the first quarter of next year, the company said.

The upcoming release combines several server-side enhancements, which were to be the centerpiece of the now-defunct 4.5 version, with client-side developments that thousands of Microsoft customers and potential customers clamored for during an Exchange users' meeting this fall in Austin, Texas.

"That's where we got a lot of our feedback," said a Microsoft spokesperson. Based on customer critiques, the company opted for a full-scale upgrade that will hit the market about the same time that competitors Netscape and Lotus will release new versions of their own groupware packages.

For the 5.0 releases, Microsoft developers are redesigning the Web Connector, the product's Internet gateway, to offer better access to the Net. The new version will use the Microsoft Outlook client as an Exchange client and will also work with any standard Web browser. When it's released with Exchange, the Outlook client will look and act a lot like a browser, an enhancement that is designed to reduce training time and make it easier to use the groupware engine, according to Mark Levitt, an analyst at International Data Corporation.

"They were convinced by customers to make some quick fixes and make Exchange more Internet-friendly" before releasing the version, Levitt said. He also he expects the changes made to be customer-pleasers.

Support for NNTP on the server will give Exchange users a tool for participating in discussion groups, and will significantly improve on its newsreader. With the addition of SMTP into Exchange 5.0's potpourri of Internet protocols, Microsoft will at least momentarily slip ahead of the competition in offering users the ability to store HTML documents in their native form, eliminating the need for cumbersome conversion that can result in lost data.

Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research said the native HTML storage offering marks a significant move to the Internet. Yet he questioned if the enhancement will fully address data corruption concerns since most such documents will arrive as email attachments, and "attachments just don't work well on the Internet."

Microsoft is billing the change in release plans as a 45-day delay, which would place Exchange 5.0 in the marketplace by about mid-February. This is the latest in a history of delays and client-side bugs that have come to characterize the Exchange product that have annoyed customers, analysts said. The analysts did add that Microsoft has a chance to offset the bad news about the release date by addressing specific customer concerns.

Exchange 5.0 will officially enter the market around the same time that Netscape unveils its Communicator and SuiteSpot groupware. Lotus will follow with new client-side advances to its Domino Server package that comes with its Notes groupware. The companies are gearing up to duke it out in the groupware space as proprietary software like Exchange and Notes find their Internet legs, while Internet-savvy Netscape scrambles to add and integrate features to its products.

By mid-1997, the analysts said the market leaders will be offering groupware packages that look remarkably alike and feature similar capabilities and support for Internet protocols.

Exchange works only on Windows NT operating systems, while its chief competitors operate on Windows, Unix, and other platforms.