Did Exchange ActiveSync help Apple to beat RIM?


Now that the dust has settled down after the publication of my recent interview with Perry Clarke, Microsoft VP for Exchange development, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the statements made by Perry and the reaction that I’ve received since. I plan to look at some of the claims in detail over a series of posts. Here goes.

Many were bewildered by his claim that “I don’t think that Apple would have been so successful with the iPhone against RIM in the enterprise if we hadn’t created the EAS ecosystem.” On the surface, saying that Microsoft helped Apple win the battle for enterprise email mobility seems like a stretch, but I think there is some validity here.

Cast your minds back a decade and you’d find that Research in Motion (RIM) had seized the imagination and the wallets of companies. Exchange wasn’t quite as dominant in the enterprise space as it is now as the struggle for the #1 spot was still hotly disputed by Lotus Notes. However, a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) was a common part of Exchange deployments, especially in North America, and they were expensive to license and deploy. Over time, RIM steadily spread themselves worldwide by signing deals with local mobile operators to carry traffic from devices back to RIM’s Network Operations Center (NOC), the core of their ability to deliver messages quickly, reliably, and securely.

I used a BlackBerry “Quark” in the 2003-2005 period and liked it very much, even if it created some discord at home by introducing the constant demand of “read me, read me” as buzzes announced the arrival of new mail.

Possibly because it was the only reliable protocol available to connect to an Exchange server at the time, RIM used MAPI to interface their servers to Exchange and monitor mailboxes. A single BES was only capable of handling a couple of hundred active mailboxes. In effect, the BES server worked like a hyperactive client, constantly connecting to update user mailboxes. On the other hand, Exchange 2003 wasn’t too light on its feet either and the combination of BES and Exchange 2003 required substantial (expensive) hardware resources.

Microsoft changed the game by including Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) in Exchange 2003 SP1. The big advantage was that EAS came free of charge because it was part of the core Exchange offering. The downside was that few reasonable (functional) mobile clients existed as the Windows Mobile 5.0 devices of the time were slow and buggy. Despite Microsoft’s best effort to market EAS as “direct push email”, the available devices proved the weak point. BlackBerry devices ruled and their users continued to improve their keyboarding skills.

Apple launched the first iPhone in June 2007. This model could connect to Exchange, but only via the older POP3 and IMAP4 protocols. However, the iPhone 3G, launched in July 2008, supported EAS and could therefore synchronize mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks with Exchange. The EHLO post welcoming Apple to the EAS fold is still online.

Of course, the implementation of client-side functionality is entirely in the hands of the device vendor and Apple did not implement all of the EAS features in their email client, nor were they always very good at how iOS used EAS. However, what Apple produced was good enough in terms of functionality and appearance to make it a very real contender. And what’s more, executives loved the iPhone and bought them in droves, and then demanded that IT provided the necessary connectivity to allow the executives to use their beloved devices to access their email.

RIM was still an expensive solution and its devices were not as attractive as the iPhone. RIM’s devices did have a keyboard and that keyboard was a part of the way people worked, but it was undermined by the Apple app store and the explosion of available apps for the iPhone. Suddenly, the closed ecosystem of RIM was threatened by the apparent openness and extendibility of the iPhone, all packaged with a look and feel that everyone wanted. The slippy slope became steeper and more and more customers eliminated BES from their environments as they upgraded to Exchange 2007 or Exchange 2010.

The iPhone (and iPads) are not as secure as BlackBerry devices. They are not as controllable from a system administration perspective. They have caused problems for Exchange servers in many recent updates to the iOS operating system to a point where the prospect of an iOS update causes Exchange administrators to break out into a cold sweat. But iPhone is still the king of the enterprise email mobility stakes, at least in style if not in numbers where the “can’t get no respect” Android devices have probably surpassed the iPhone in terms of the number of devices connected to Exchange.

RIM is now a shadow of its former self. Much of the damage is self-inflicted through corporate hubris but I think that a fair amount of truth exists in the assertion that the EAS ecosystem undercut and weakened RIM in a key corporate constituency. Apple has gone from strength to strength and tens of millions of iPhone and iPad devices have connected to Exchange, including Exchange Online (Office 365) over the years. Moreover, Apple demonstrated to the market the value that lay in licensing EAS, a lesson that was not ignored by the Android mobile device vendors such as HTC and Samsung, who have prospered by licensing EAS too.

EAS might not have been the blade that killed RIM, but it certainly did some damage by opening up alternatives for mobile computing. It also allowed Apple to take advantage of a server-based infrastructure that they did not have to build nor license before customers could connect to Exchange.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
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