Microsoft Is Looking Cloudward

Ideally, the cloud versus on-premises debate should fade away. Can Microsoft's Exchange Online strategy fulfill cloud computing's platform-agnostic promise?

After spending some time with Microsoft's forthcoming Exchange Online service, I've been thinking about the promise-as well as the current reality-of the company's software-plus-services strategy for addressing IT's apparently cloud-filled future.

The software-plus-services pitch goes something like this: Rather than dive headfirst into cloud-based services, organizations and individuals should pursue a blended strategy, based on traditional on-premises software, complemented by hosted services where appropriate.

This strategy makes a lot of sense, since it's unwise to place any particular platform above the tasks you're looking to accomplish. Ideally, the cloud versus on-premises debate should fade into the background, and organizations should focus instead on running the applications they require on whatever combination of platforms is best suited to their goals.

However, considering Microsoft's history of tying the platforms and the applications that it produces more tightly than is necessary or helpful, I'm skeptical about whether Microsoft is prepared to help build this sort of platform-transparent future.

Take, for instance, Exchange Online, which lacks the automatic on-premises-to-cloud failover capabilities I would find most helpful from a software-plus-services offering, but which is more tightly tied to Windows on the client side than the regular on-premises version of Exchange.

With my own Exchange-based mailbox, I currently use both POP3 and IMAP to weave Exchange into my non-Windows devices, and as far as I can tell, neither of those options is available with Exchange Online. The service does, however, rely on IMAP for migrating messages into Exchange Online.

If software-plus-services is to boil down to: Come for the services, but you're not getting away without some software, and by the way, that software runs only on Windows-then it's going to be tough for Microsoft to participate in the lower-barriers world that cloud computing can make possible.

Now, Exchange Online is not yet out of beta, and Microsoft may well adapt it toward greater client agnosticism. Microsoft's recent move to expand the Open Specification Promise under which the company released a sheaf of interoperability protocol specifications to include commercial as well as noncommercial uses was certainly a promising development.

With regard to Exchange, I'd love to see Microsoft push its interoperability initiative further by opening up Exchange ActiveSync licensing and inviting users of all client platforms into the product's customer base.

eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at