Google’s Exchange ActiveSync Debacle

I’m having trouble getting too worked up about Google’s decision to drop Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) support for non-paying customers of Gmail et al.  If this really was an attempt to slow Microsoft’s progress in mobile it was both petty and futile.  The bad PR, and the less than optimal experience Google provides its customers, is likely to do more harm to Google than to Microsoft.

Let’s get the most obvious and direct part of this out-of-the-way.  Microsoft isn’t going to let Google’s move keep its clients from accessing Google services.  All Microsoft clients already support IMAP, so mail isn’t really the problem.  Microsoft has never supported CalDAV for calendaring or CardDAV for contacts, but these are open standards that Microsoft can easily support tactically.  In other words, if Microsoft cares about Google’s move it would be easy for them to add support for this technology to those products where it feels they make sense.  Windows Phone would be a likely case.  Microsoft would almost certainly do the minimal job necessary to satisfy consumers while leaving EAS the overwhelming choice for businesses.  Not that they really need to do much.  The remote management aspects of EAS make it far preferable to anything Google or anyone else besides RIM offers.

From a technical perspective one needs to keep in mind EAS’ origins and target.  Unlike all the other protocols in use, only EAS was designed from the beginning as a Mobile email/groupware/management protocol.  It was specifically designed to counter RIM, whose advantages in security and push-email were driving it past all other smartphone contenders.  Since most of the email systems that RIM was connecting Blackberrys to were Microsoft Exchange Servers the existence of a competitive offering that allowed Smartphones to talk directly to those Exchange Servers was a big deal.  While the EAS effort started in the Windows Mobile team it was soon taken over by the Exchange team.

The Exchange team, eager to protect the value of Exchange mailbox licenses, made EAS available to all mobile device manufacturers.  Anyone who aspired to sell smartphones to businesses implemented EAS.  Windows Mobile did the most extensive EAS implementation (even better than what Windows Phone currently offers), and rode it to (briefly) match RIM’s market share.  Palm, at the time a true force in smartphones, added support for its Palm OS (and later WM, obviously) devices.  Nokia, then the worldwide leader in Smartphones, supported it.  EAS became ubiquitous across all (non-RIM) business oriented devices.

Then came the iPhone and the consumer Smartphone wave.  Apple soon adopted EAS so iPhones/iPads could access corporate email systems.  Google held off with Android, but its OEMs added the support themselves.  Finally Google added EAS support to their mail app.  Third-parties added EAS support to RIM’s Blackberry (and RIM is reportedly adding native support in Blackberry 10).  EAS support is now nearly universal across client devices, and that has started to impact server protocol decisions.

On the business side Microsoft’s protocol story has been pretty good and consistent over the years.  MAPI is the primary protocol for Exchange with EAS for mobile applications.   POP3 and IMAP are supported, but most enterprises eschew them due to their poorer security attributes.  But on the consumer side Microsoft has always been a mess.

I don’t even recall how the original MSN Mail communicated.  Hotmail was web-focused and initially offered POP3 access for those who insisted on using a mail client.  Microsoft removed POP3, then added it back for paying customers.  They never supported IMAP.  Mostly they focused on proprietary protocols between a Microsoft-supplied client (Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, and a variety of mobile clients) and the Hotmail servers.  In the brief period  between the advent of the iPhone and Apple’s support for EAS Ray Ozzie was able to convince the Hotmail team to enable POP3 for all users so no matter the device Hotmail would be universally accessible.  The story was less clear with Calendar and Contacts support, and it was only in the last few years that clients could even access the Calendar or really integrate Contacts.

With EAS achieving mobile client ubiquity the opportunity for the “Windows Live” products to clean up their act became obvious and EAS became the protocol for mail, calendar, and contacts.  The new mobile-focused Windows 8 Mail application uses EAS as its primary protocol.  And Outlook 2013 puts the final piece into the puzzle by adding native EAS support.  While Exchange continues to offer richer functionality, Microsoft’s consumer groupware offering finally has client support that is on par with its business offering.

Other have sought to exploit EAS client ubiquity, and that includes Google.  Sure Google’s support for EAS makes Microsoft’s life easier, but it mostly has been a boon to Google.  In theory, by supporting EAS in its groupware products Google makes it easier for a business to replace Microsoft Exchange with limited impact on end-users.  And sure enough they plan to retain that attribute for paying customers.  Strategically they made a mistake in offering EAS support to non-paying customers!

Any company with business sense, and Google displays little outside the advertising arena, would have made EAS a differentiator between its free and its paid service.  Go look at the history of hosted Exchange, for example, and you will see that most companies reserved EAS support for their more expensive packages.  EAS was a way to differentiate between a low-price/low-margin entry-level package and the mainstream package they really wanted you to buy.  When Google made EAS support part of their free offering they took away a clear incentive for small (including 1 employee) companies to go with their paid offering.

I believe Google’s dropping of EAS support in their free offerings is more about fixing their free/paid differentiation than about an attempt to slow Microsoft’s mobile efforts.  The latter is a secondary benefit, but one Google knows is at best a very slight speed bump Microsoft has to go over.  The timing is important though.  With Microsoft holding such a small share of the mobile client market Google can make this change without enduring the wrath of too many customers.  Had they waited for Windows Phone and Windows 8 market share to climb, and thus the expectation of EAS connectivity to Google’s free services to become more entrenched, they couldn’t have made the change.

So what do I expect to happen?  Windows Phone will incorporate some means of syncing Google’s calendar and contacts via CalDAV and CardDAV.  That may first come by way of apps, but later by way of native support.  Windows 8 will ignore Google’s move for the time being since it is unlikely to impact Windows 8 adoption.  All mechanisms for using Google services in Windows 7 continue to work for Windows 8.  So Microsoft can simply wait for the Windows 8 user base to be large enough that Google can’t resist user demand for either Windows Store (nee Metro nee Modern) apps or reinstatement of EAS for free services.  At the same time Microsoft will use Google’s treatment of EAS as a marketing tool for moving customers to outlook.com and its overall campaign of painting Google as not being customer friendly.

The only user base that is a bit in limbo in all of this are Windows RT users.  They can, of course, use Google services via the web browser.  But with no ability to fall back on Windows 7-compatible solutions, no EAS support, no Google-supplied Windows Store apps, and no native CalDAV/CardDAV support Windows RT will remain a second-class citizen for those committed to Google services.  Actually though, maybe this is a great opportunity for third parties.  Microsoft’s built-in Modern/Metro Mail etc. apps are very rudimentary to begin with and the lack of Outlook on this platform means there is no serious groupware app.  Perhaps the lack of support for Google services will propel a third-party to create an awesome groupware app for Windows RT!  Now wouldn’t that be an interesting unintended consequence of Google’s actions?

The bottom line here is that Google’s removal of EAS support from its free offerings present little difficulty for Microsoft.  And if Microsoft plays its cards right, this will hurt Google more than it will hurt Microsoft.

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18 Responses to Google’s Exchange ActiveSync Debacle

  1. Tim says:

    My wife and I are quite “dependent” on Google’s calendar & contact services. They are good products and are easy to work with, but with this latest move I’ve been pondering move to outlook.com for email/calendar/contacts. I don’t want to deal with the work involved, though.

    I don’t know if it is just me, but in the past few months since moving to Windows 8 (desktop/laptop), Windows RT (Surface) and WP8, it feels like it is a whole lot easier to live in one rather than multiple ecosystems. This has become especially noticeable in the past few days since my wife’s HTC 8x started a continual, uncontrollable reboot cycle (Verizon said it had to be replaced) and she opted to go with an iPhone 5…mainly because Best Buy didn’t have the specific HTC color she wanted and she didn’t want to wait. Now having to load all of the iCloud, iTunes, i-whatever software on the computer with little interoperability for what I use is a real pain. While HTML5 may provide cross-platform capabilities on the application side of things, there seem to be strong reasons to find one platform vendor and stick with them to get the best experience across all devices.

    On another note – I have found my wife’s experience with her iPhone to be interesting…she is an average user, absolutely non-technical, and she is quite frustrated with what the iPhone can’t do that WP8 did just fine. Yes, iPhone has Siri and voice navigation, but the simple things that she does every day (e.g. texting, email) is easier and more streamlined in WP8 than in the iPhone. I had always heard from Apple fans that no one could match the intuitiveness of their products, but I have found otherwise in my wife’s experience.

  2. Omri Gazitt says:

    Hal, a few thoughts:
    - Microsoft’s consumer protocol story is still messy IMHO. Neither Outlook nor the WP7 mail app work well with hotmail. Ironically they work better with Gmail over IMAP. Of course, they work best with Exchange over MAPI.
    - You don’t know how much you come to rely on MAPI integration between Outlook and Exchange until you try to use Outlook with Gmail. The latency is unbearable. Outlook cached mode is a joke over IMAP (at least over Microsoft’s implementation of IMAP).
    - The paid version of Google Apps for Business integrates beautifully with Outlook. My experience is indistinguishable from my Outlook -> Exchange experience. Of course, that’s a paid feature.
    - Google appears to be eliminating the free Google Apps tier across the board – I’m sure you saw their announcement that they aren’t taking any new customers at the free tier. So I would see their move of dropping EAS for free-tier customers as a signal that they see Exchange integration as a business feature, period. They are just being consistent.
    - Ultimately I can’t blame them for that move. They see Microsoft as an Enterprise company and they understand they have to integrate with Microsoft’s Enterprise systems because their business customers demand it. They don’t see Microsoft as a consumer company (at least not until WinRT sales prove that it’s worth targeting).

    • halberenson says:

      I don’t use Outlook much except to accept calendar requests from travel sites, so all my email use is Hotmail. Most of that is through WP7, which works just fine, or the web interface. I also use the Win8 Mail app a bit. What problems do you see?

      • ogazitt says:

        My issue with Hotmail and the integration with Outlook / WinPhone is that I can’t seem to get a consistent view of the inbox, especially as it relates to deleting messages. I believe it’s due to the usage of POP3 as the protocol that Outlook uses to connect to Hotmail. E.g. deletes on the phone OR via Outlook are only done locally. Only the web interface seems to be definitive (i.e. deletes using the web interface do get synced down to the phone… but even those don’t get synced to Outlook once it has downloaded a message!)

        Since I am primarily an Outlook and phone user and rarely use the web UI, this is a pain for me. I have almost entirely abandoned Hotmail as a consequence.

        Of course, this is what POP was designed for – making a local, nondestructive snapshot of a remote mailbox. By contrast, IMAP does support remote operations and allows you to have a single consistent view, so both Outlook and my Windows Phone work better with Gmail than they do with Outlook. It is completely insane IMHO that Hotmail hasn’t implemented a more modern protocol like IMAP, not to mention not having native MAPI support (Google Apps for Business does!)

        But even over IMAP, Outlook’s integration with Gmail is far from perfect – the biggest pain with this is that “DML” operations appear to be implemented synchronously for every message (even with Outlook operating in cached mode), leading to unacceptable latencies when trying to bulk-delete or bulk-move messages. Of course, this may just be attributable to a bad implementation on Outlook’s part… I suspect this is the case, because Mail.app on OSX seems to have far less of these latency issues, and I believe it integrates with Gmail using IMAP as well.

        • halberenson says:

          Why are you using POP rather than the Outlook Connector (2010) or EAS (2013)?

          I did have a problem with deletes on the phone, but haven’t seen it in quite some time

          • ogazitt says:

            I am using the Outlook connector with Outlook 2010. I believe it connects over POP3.

            • halberenson says:

              You wouldn’t need a connector for that.

            • halberenson says:

              The Outlook Connector uses a protocol called DeltaSync (http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/windowsexperience/archive/2007/06/11/microsoft-office-outlook-connector-beta-now-available.aspx) while earlier versions used WebDAV.

              My wife is a heavy Outlook 2010 to Hotmail user and reports no issues. She also uses both an iPhone and an iPad through EAS to Hotmail and is currently having no issues. I do recall that a year or so ago her iPhone was having some issues around delete, but either an update to IOS or some other tweak made them go away.

              Since this is an intermittent problem for some users across different clients and client-connect types it makes me wonder if Hotmail does have a bug wherein some sync state gets persistently corrupted for a particular mailbox. A lot of protocols allow mail messages to change unique identifiers over time, and I know for sure that some of the sync state invalidates over time. I wonder if there is a case here where Hotmail and a particular client never quite get back in perfect sync? This is causing me a headache, because my brain decided it should access memories of design discussions archived to tape long ago :-)

              You know you could get connected to the right people to resolve this. You probably know some of them :-)

    • Dan Neely says:

      Latency has never been a problem for me accessing gmail over imap in outlook. Checking my inbox for new messages will normally show them within a few seconds of their sending being requested via a webpage and setting the sync time to every 2 minutes makes sure other messages get to me promptly.

      The only issue I have is that despite creating a PST file for my gmail account, outlook won’t let me browse the contents when I’m offline. Would enabling cached mode fix this; or do I already have it enabled and disabling it would just free the disk space the PST is taking up?

      • halberenson says:

        Honestly I didn’t even think cached mode worked for IMAP and was surprised when Omri mentioned it, but maybe we are discussing two different things. Outlook has a specific “Cached Exchange Mode” that was designed to eliminate an original problem wherein the Outlook UI and network access where syncronous. So if access to Exchange was disrupted in even the slightest way the UI just froze up. The solution was to background sync your exchange mailbox into a local MAPI store and have the UI only access that local copy. The additional benefit of this example is that it made offline access work exceedingly well. The Hotmail Connector then mirrored this model. I don’t recall Exchange providing an equivalent for IMAP, but haven’t seriously used IMAP since Outlook added support for multiple MAPI providers. I may give this a try later and will report back on what I find. Meanwhile, maybe someone else can answer your question.

        • Dan Neely says:

          I think you’re right about us talking about different things. I never heard of the issue you’re describing; and assume that cached mode was enabled by default by my employer when I got my first exchange account.

          I wasn’t aware that Google offered a MAPI option for gmail at all; but $5/month for the paid version of google apps for business is more than I think the feature would be worth for my personal account. Oh well.

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  5. mfwiniberg says:

    What seems to be missing from this discussion, and I can’t decide whether this reflects badly on Microsoft or Google (possibly both) is that Outlook 2013 cannot be used in EAS mode with Google apps because the version expected is newer than that provided by Google.

    Thus, if you upgrade to Outlook 2013, you lose everything other than IMAP access to Google mail.

    I’ve just had to revert to Outlook 2010, as Google isn’t prepared to say even IF, let alone WHEN they will support the later version of EAS required by Outlook, or whether they will upgrade the Outlook Connector for Google Apps at all…

  6. Tecsi Aron says:

    One slight disagreement, I think it will affect Windows 8 adoption at least on mobile devices, I for one think that Google Calendar GMail, and Google Contacts is far superior to what Microsoft can offer in those areas, and I for one would never buy a phone that I cannot sync with those services… Then again I would also never pay Google for the ability to sync those services.

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