Is it time to make way for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync?

Is Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync on its way to becoming the de facto protocol for Exchange connectivity? There are pros and cons to that notion.

Although there hasn't been word from Microsoft, recent product releases seem to hint that ActiveSync might become the preferred method of connecting to an Exchange mailbox. Even today, it is theoretically possible to abandon MAPI connectivity and use only ActiveSync. But is going "all in" on ActiveSync the right move?

Exchange ActiveSync seems to be everywhere

In the past, ActiveSync was used solely for connecting mobile devices to Exchange Server. Today, however, ActiveSync seems to be popping up everywhere.

It's no big surprise that Windows Phone 8 (as well as pretty much every other mobile operating system) supports Exchange ActiveSync. However, Microsoft also includes ActiveSync in Windows 8 and in Windows RT. This inclusion makes it possible to connect Windows 8 PCs or Windows RT tablets like the Microsoft Surface to an Exchange mailbox without Outlook.

One hint that Microsoft has begun moving toward ActiveSync as the preferred method for connecting to Exchange can be found in the Microsoft Surface. At the time of its release, the only way to natively connect a Surface tablet to Exchange was through Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync (using Outlook Web App was also an option for Surface users).

Now I'm sure you're thinking that in June 2013, Microsoft announced it would add Outlook to Surface RT tablets as part of the Windows 8.1 update, right? While this move may seem to suggest that Microsoft isn't going "all in" for ActiveSync after all, there are other motivating factors.

Windows RT has not been very well received in the marketplace. The consumer space was already dominated by the iPad long before Windows RT was released. Likewise, corporate IT departments have also expressed frustration with Windows RT because it lacks certain features that would make it better suited to business environments.

In my opinion, Microsoft's inclusion of Outlook on Surface RT tablets has nothing to do with its ActiveSync roadmap. Instead, I think that the decision was based solely on the idea of making Windows RT more palatable to business users.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Microsoft is wholeheartedly embracing ActiveSync is that for the first time, Outlook – in this case Outlook 2013 -- supports ActiveSync connectivity. Previous versions of Outlook only allowed for Exchange Server connectivity through MAPI, POP3 or IMAP.

Exchange ActiveSync advantages

There are two main advantages to adopting Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync throughout your organization.

The first is that Exchange allows you to set up ActiveSync mailbox policies. Doing so allows you to enforce security on any device that is attached to Exchange through ActiveSync. That way, you can ensure that users are accessing Exchange mailboxes securely, regardless of which platform they're using.

Another advantage is that ActiveSync minimizes the amount of mailbox data that is stored on an end-user device at any given time. For example, Outlook has traditionally stored a full copy of the user's mailbox in an OST file. This file can grow quite large and has been known to be problematic in certain situations.

In contrast, Exchange ActiveSync is designed to only download a minimal amount of messaging data. ActiveSync is also typically configured to download messages from the last week, or the last month, but only in rare occasions does it download the user's entire mailbox.

Exchange ActiveSync disadvantages

As you can see, there are a few compelling reasons to begin using ActiveSync connectivity across the board. However, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't mention that there are some distinct disadvantages as well.

The primary disadvantage is that ActiveSync is not natively supported in older versions of Windows or older versions of Outlook. Prior to Windows 8 and Outlook 2013, ActiveSync was used solely for mobile device connectivity.

Another potential disadvantage is that although Exchange ActiveSync is currently an industry standard, it might not stay that way. Google announced that the option to synchronize Gmail through ActiveSync is no longer available. While this decision doesn't directly affect organizations running Exchange, Google's decision to discontinue ActiveSync support makes it plausible for a company to eventually remove ActiveSync support from Android devices. This would result in the devices being unable to connect to Exchange Server through ActiveSync.

About the author:
Brien Posey is a ten-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Brien worked as a chief information officer at a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the nation's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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