January 30 Update: Just on the deadline, it seems like Google has acceded to a request from Microsoft to extend its support for ActiveSync connections to Gmail until July 31, 2013. The step simply makes sense as it reduces the number of users who would otherwise be mad at Google.
Google has licensed Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) from Microsoft since February 2009 to use as a synchronization protocol between mobile devices that support EAS. The service is branded as “Google Sync” and deploys the same EAS protocol as used by lots of mobile devices to connect to Microsoft Exchange Server. The big difference is that Gmail replaces Exchange on the back end, a situation that’s possible because essentially EAS clients and servers communicate with a series of XML requests and responses transmitted over HTTP. For those who are interested in plunging into the details, ActiveSync is documented on Microsoft’s web site, where you should probably start with MS-ASCMD, the protocol’s command definition specification (quite a mouthful).
On December 14, Google announced that it was withdrawing support of EAS for free Gmail accounts as part of an exercise curiously named “Winter Cleaning”, which sounds almost like a code name for a World War II campaign. After January 30, 2013, only Google Apps customers for Business, Education, and Government will be able to set up new devices with Google Sync. Apparently devices that are already connected with EAS will continue to work.
The announcement generated a flood of commentary, including an assertion by Paul Thurrott that this move means that “Google is declaring war on Microsoft”. I’m not so sure. Among other postings, I was amused to read Ed Bott’s comment on ZDNet.com that:
“EAS is a data exchange protocol. It’s not Microsoft code, and it has nothing to do with Exchange, the mail server program that Microsoft sells to corporations (and now to small businesses as well, via Office 365).”
Saying that EAS has nothing to do with Exchange must have come as a surprise to the ActiveSync developers that work as part of the Exchange team at Microsoft. I’m sure that the comment really meant to say that EAS stands alone as a protocol that isn’t absolutely tied to Exchange, the truth of which is seen in the fact that Google has been able to implement EAS for Gmail.
In any case, a lot of the commentary to date has been universally negative, but I think a reasonable argument can be made for Google’s decision. Consider these arguments:
First, Google has to license EAS from Microsoft and therefore has to pay Microsoft substantial fees given the number of EAS clients that connect to Gmail. According to an article by Mary Jo Foley published at the time when Google took out its license, “the standard fee Microsoft charges its ActiveSync licensees is $100,000 “or first-year’s royalties, whichever is higher, with a per unit royalty thereafter.” Think of the number of iPhones, iPads, Windows Phones, and other devices that can connect to EAS. Now imagine how many of these are connecting to a free Gmail mailbox. And finally ask whether Google enjoys the privilege of paying Microsoft to enable these connections. I think not. On the other hand, if you’re a paying Google Apps customer, the cost of the EAS license is more than taken care of by the revenue that Google gets from Google Apps. Money talks…
Second, I suspect that the largest community of EAS clients that connect to Gmail are those using iOS devices. Google has recently launched a heap of new and updated iOS apps, including one for Gmail. It obviously makes a ton of sense to gently convince people to use the Gmail app rather than EAS because now Google controls the user interface, overall experience, and protocols. In other words, when Google decides to enhance Gmail, it can do so in the knowledge that it can issue an update to the iOS app and doesn’t have to depend on using a protocol that it does not control.
Third, being forced to use a Microsoft protocol must have been a tough pill for Google’s engineers to swallow. No software engineering company likes to be forced to buy in a component from a major competitor, especially one that forces end users to configure email clients using something labelled “Microsoft Exchange” to connect to Gmail, which is the case on iOS devices. And then there’s the small matter of having to change Gmail so that it supports the EAS protocol and the ongoing maintenance of that capability, effort that the Gmail engineers would probably prefer to expend on new Gmail features.
Fourth, making a public announcement that Gmail has dropped some support for EAS takes some of the gloss off the success that EAS has enjoyed in the mobile device market. Even though EAS has had some problems lately with iOS 6, it’s still an extremely successful protocol that is supported by a very diverse spectrum of devices including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows RT. Drawing attention to other protocols like CardDAV and CalDAV and their own iOS apps increases publicity for Google and reduces the importance of EAS.
Finally, there’s the lovely prospect of being able to tag Microsoft with the blame when an iOS client can’t configure a connection and the end user doesn’t realize why. Following the advice on an outdated web page after January 30, 2013, they select “Microsoft Exchange” and attempt to connect to m.google.com only for the connection to be declined. Because the connection type is labeled as Microsoft Exchange, the subsequent failure to connect must be Microsoft’s fault!
The change in Google’s tactics is likely to affect Windows Phone users most. If you’re in this category and have a Gmail account, you’ll be forced to use IMAP4, what is now a sadly outdated and less-functional protocol, to connect to Gmail. And if you want to synchronize with Google Calendar? Or maybe even your contacts? No problem, if you can find a Windows Phone app that speaks CalDAV or CardDAV, the protocols preferred by Google to access these data.
All-in-all, a much better solution than attempting to use Gmail with IMAP4 is to move your email account to Outlook.com and have all of your Gmail forwarded there (and the Trueswitch solution is available to move all your existing messages and other data over). Outlook.com supports EAS and Gmail forwards email superbly, so you have the benefit of continuing to be able to use EAS while also receiving email to your Gmail address. This is how I receive Gmail on my Windows Phone 7.5 device.
Make no mistake, Google and Microsoft are at war over cloud services with a huge battle raging between Google Apps and Office 365. Tempting as it is to see more than there really is in “Winter Cleaning”, I think EAS is a skirmish rather than a full-on battle. Microsoft might smart in losing some revenue from an EAS customer, for this is what Google is here, but given the importance of EAS to Microsoft’s overall mobile device strategy (for example, look at how the Windows 8 Mail App uses EAS), I rather think they will quickly get over this bump. Windows Phone users will be less sanguine, but given the numbers of these users in terms of the overall Gmail population, I doubt that Google is too worried. And anyway, as pointed out above, an obvious solution exists for Windows Phone users, so there doesn’t seem to be too much to worry about really… So why all the fuss?
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna