Finally, a real Outlook alternative?

As part of its recent commitment to making its products more interoperable Microsoft today released a new 14000 pages of documentation under the Microsoft Protocols Program. A healthy chunk of that documentation relates to communication between Outlook and Exchange which should be news enough to make any non-Windows developer prick up their ears.

While it has long been possible for clients other than Outlook to communicate with Exchange doing so has generally required the enablement of protocols like IMAP and POP on that Exchange box both of which are less secure than Microsoft’s proprietary protocol encrypted MAPI. Microsoft hasn’t documented how its encrypted version of MAPI works meaning the protocol has only been available to Outlook clients.

It will take time for developers to work out whether the new documentation makes this feasible but Microsoft is certainly dangling the possibility. “Developers working with Exchange Server protocols will have additional resources to build applications that directly communicate and store information with either Exchange Server or Microsoft Office Outlook related to e-mail calendars contacts voice mail and task tracking” its press release announcing the new documentation suggests.

Admittedly there are several potential roadblocks. Only the 2007 versions of Exchange and Outlook are being documented so companies running older versions won’t get much initial help (though there’s likely to be some overlap with the pre-2007 releases). The final version of the documentation isn’t due until June so any solutions developed before then are inevitably going to need tidying up.

More annoyingly Microsoft also hasn’t disclosed which protocols are covered by patents something it will also announce in June. It has promised to make patented technologies available on reasonable license terms but any patent restrictions would block the development of a truly open source Outlook alternative.

Even if encrypted MAPI access for Thunderbird and its ilk remains ultimately elusive Microsoft is anticipating keen interest in the new protocol information. “I know a bunch of you have been waiting for these” Microsoft engineer Stephen Griffin engineer wrote on his blog.

If you’re a budding developer itching to get started on liberating the world from the tyranny of Outlook you can download the documentation here. There’s also a forum for discussing using the protocols. This was conspicuously empty when we visited but to be fair reading through 67 megabytes of documentation can take a while.