Even though Apple builds great products for the consumer, the company often misses the boat with business users. Snow Leopard stands to make serious inroads with Mac users in wingtips and pinstripes with native support for Microsoft Exchange Server. Mail, iCal, and Address Book will all be updated to talk directly with your Exchange account and in some cases, may work better than Entourage.
The Long & Winding Road
It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but the Mac has a long history of working with Microsoft. I think a little history is interesting here to show how we’ve arrived at Snow Leopard.
The Mac has had Microsoft Office almost from the beginning (Word and Excel for Mac were first released in 1985). Jaguar added LDAP access to Address Book. Panther introduced Windows Printer Sharing and Active Directory support so that you could log into a Windows Domain from a Macintosh. Tiger introduced Exchange accounts in Mail (though with IMAP access only) along with much improved support for Samba and Windows file sharing. The move to Intel gave us virtualization of Windows apps.
Leopard brought Boot Camp, of course, but this did nothing to help integrate Mac OS X itself into a Windows environment. But under the hood some exciting things were happening. The Address Book and Calendar stores were updated to offer better programmatic access and the Sync Services framework was updated. The result was that Mail and iCal were better at sharing data with each other and we got to-do items that were shared between those two apps. iCal was updated to access outside CalDAV accounts and Mail got Notes that (eventually) were able to sync with the iPhone.
The iPhone OS 2.0 firmware update pushed Exchange integration to new heights because Apple chose to license the ActiveSync technology from Microsoft. This put the iPhone on a level playing field with Windows Mobile devices and Outlook when accessing information stored in Exchange.
Snow Leopard brings all of this together: integrated email, calendar, and address book (with to-do’s and notes) with access to outside accounts and the ActiveSync technology used in the iPhone. In fact, Apple is touting that the Mac will now have out-of-the-box support for “Exchange Server 2007, something that Windows PC’s don’t have.” The requirement to use Exchange Server 2007 might disappoint some that are still on 2003, but it makes good sense when you consider that 2007 has the new Business Logic Layer that provides a consistent view of your mailboxes from any device and takes a lot of work out of writing client software. In fact, Entourage has been testing a beta version that also requires Exchange 2007 in order to take advantage of this technology to make Entourage behave more like Outlook does on a Windows PC.
Personally, I hope for Entourage to die a slow and horrible death. Having been on the support end of things, I have seen how hard it is to make Entourage work reliably. And when it fails? Look out, because all of your email messages, contact info, tasks, calendar items, etc. are stored in one big database file. Lose that file, and you’ve lost everything. And backing it up with Time Machine means you have copied a multigigabyte file to your backup drive every hour.
Recovering from errors in Mail, where each message is an individual file, is much simpler and it works beautifully with Time Machine and Spotlight because of this file structure. I know there are people that like the consolidated view of all information in one application, but I suspect that this preference comes more from force of habit after using Outlook than any real advantage.
So can Mail, iCal, and Address Book replace Entourage? I think so.
Mail provides access to your Exchange account right along any other IMAP or POP3 accounts. As a Mac user, you get all the cool Mac features like data detectors, Spotlight, and Quick Look. I’m impressed that Quick Look can display previews of Office documents even if you don’t have Microsoft Office for Mac installed on your machine. This might be a good reason to give iWork another look.
iCal will seamlessly blend your personal local calendars and your Exchange calendars in one view. I liked how the WWDC Keynote demo showed how iCal could intelligently schedule meetings to avoid conflicts, just like Outlook. And of course it’s still integrated with Mail and Address Book so you can see your to-do’s here or in Mail, and you can auto-fill addresses from Exchange.
OK, contacts are not very sexy, but I do like how you can access the Global Address List from within any app that can talk to Address Book. That means Mail will auto-complete addresses as you type messages and iCal will auto-complete names as you create meeting invitations. I suppose it might mean that other apps like Delicious Library that integrate with Address Book will let you keep track of DVDs that you loan to people at work, even if they aren’t in your personal contact list. I also like how smart groups can blend your personal address book with the Exchange contacts. Very slick.
The Future of Microsoft Office
I see a big problem coming for the MacBU at Microsoft. One of the primary reasons to purchase the full version of Microsoft Office (the only reason?) was to get Exchange support. Now that Snow Leopard will include Exchange support natively, I suspect a lot of people will choose to purchase the Home & Student Edition, despite the language in the license that prevents you from using it for work-related activities. A decrease in revenue would naturally lead to a decrease in funding for future development. Despite my feelings about Entourage, Office is pretty useful. I hope that Apple pushes them a little hard (iWork updates will help too), but I hope they don’t push so hard that Office is abandoned. I have felt like Entourage has languished along for a few years now and if I don’t get my wish for it to just curl up and die, then maybe we can get a better, more reliable Entourage for people who want to use it.
The Future of the Mac at Work
I suspect that despite my enthusiasm, the initial support for Exchange in the first release of Snow Leopard is going to blow. I would advise caution about committing to abandoning Entourage, or a large-scale migration from Windows PCs and Outlook in 2009. The bugs, and there will be bugs, will get worked out though, and 2010 could be a very exciting year for the Mac in the business segment.