Here today

I’m not one easily given to hyperbole. I prefer to maintain a degree of cool detachment from my subject matter, in order that I may make unbiased and careful judgments and pass these on to my readers (that, if you’re reading this, is you).

This morning, Microsoft blew my freaking mind right out the freaking window. Literally. Bits of mind sprayed all over my backyard.

I am also not easily given to using the word “literally” when clearly I mean “figuratively” — you see how excited I am.

And how did Microsoft achieve this feat? By doing something Microsoft — or for that matter any company I can think of — has never done before.

This morning Microsoft announced the imminent release of a new product and, within the very same release, announced the imminent discontinuation of that same product. Barely time to take a breath in between “you’ll love it” and “you’ll get over it”.

Mind. Blown. Boom.

The product in question is Microsoft Entourage Web Services Edition. Microsoft has announced an enhancement to its messaging/calendaring/contacts application (we used to say “Personal Information Manager” but that seems so '90s now) included with Microsoft Office for Mac. According to the product’s information web page, “This rebuilt version of Entourage 2008 not only offers performance and reliability improvements to e-mail and calendaring but new syncing of tasks, notes and categories, and Autodiscovery”. Not merely new features then, but in fact an entirely new system for how the application interacts with servers and so forth. Quite the thing.

Microsoft Entourage Web Services Edition is available for download today if you’re currently using Entourage. Or, if you can wait until the 16th of September to get your hands on this baby, it is also included in the new “Business Edition” of Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 (introductory price $A499, rising in three months to $599, upgrade pricing available). That new edition also includes Microsoft Document Connection for Mac, which gives Mac users access to Microsoft’s online services such as SharePoint and Microsoft Office Live Workspace (with appropriate subscription fees paid). At last we’ll be proper Microsoft Office citizens.

Then there's the other thing. Microsoft Entourage Web Services Edition will cease availability at the end of 2010 with the release of Microsoft Office for Mac 2010. At the outside, you’re looking at a 15-month life for the product.

Even as I type that my head is shaking.

When Office for Mac 2010 is released, it will include, for the first time, Microsoft Outlook for Mac. (There has been some confusion about that because back in the pre-OS X days there was a product called Microsoft Outlook for Mac. It was never bundled with Microsoft Office. Also it only did email — no calendar, no contacts — so it was barely worthy of the name Outlook.)

The Microsoft Outlook for Mac bundled with Office 2010 promises to be what Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit has been promising for a decade or so: a fully-capable and compatible Microsoft Exchange client for the Mac. For those of you not tied to an Exchange server at work this may seem like no big deal, but for Mac users who do need access to an Exchange server at work it absolutely is a big deal. If it delivers on its promise it will mean endless arguments with corporate IT support staff will finally be over for Mac users clinging desperately to their machines among a sea of Windows boxes. Seriously, it’s a big deal.

All in the timing. Now, of course, you may recall that at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference this year it was revealed that Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) would include all sorts of extra goodies to integrate with Microsoft Exchange servers. Apple’s Mail, iCal and Address Book applications have all been updated with Exchange-friendly features. It can hardly seem a coincidence that, mere weeks away from the release of Snow Leopard and its Exchange-hugging friendliness, Microsoft has mapped out in some detail its roadmap for Exchange compatibility on the Mac for the next 18 months.

I put this very question to Amanda Lefebvre, a senior marketing manager at Microsoft’s MacBU. She scoffed at the idea that Microsoft was reacting defensively to Apple’s Exchange-related announcements, saying that the timing was more related to the discussion over the past few weeks about the next version of Office for Windows (which, I have to admit, I was unaware of not being a user of the product). Her view was that corporate users would be “making decisions about their Exchange plans” and Microsoft wanted to provide them with as much information as possible to help inform those decisions. A noble goal.

I also asked if data created by Entourage Web Services Edition would be compatible with Outlook, so that the transition would be effectively seamless. Her answer: “we aren’t announcing those details today, but we will be doing everything we can to make the transition from one to the other as simple as possible”. No further detail than that forthcoming.

To be fair (as I try always to be) Outlook promises an entirely new database structure, breaking away from the monolithic database of Entourage that made Time Machine backups completely impractical and only allowed limited Spotlight searches thanks to a kludgy workaround. This is a very good thing, make no mistake — email that you can’t easily back up or search is a disaster waiting to happen and Microsoft is doing very well to change that.

However, this also means that your data will have to be effectively rebuilt using the new database structure, however it works in detail. That process is inevitably going to be fraught with complexity and potential pitfalls (especially as the Outlook for Mac database will not be similar in structure to the Outlook for Windows database — it’s a whole new thing).

If I were a corporate IT manager, looking to make a decision about how I want to keep my users interacting with Exchange for the next 18 months, I’m presented with this choice: move everyone off Entourage and onto Snow Leopard’s Apple Mail, with its Spotlight-searchable database and Time-Machine-friendly structure which have been field-tested for years, plus all the Exchangey goodness of new versions of iCal and Address Book; Or, move everyone to Entourage Web Services Edition with its enhanced Exchange functionality, then move them all again in 15 months when the product ceases to exist, to a new database that no-one can tell me about just yet so I don’t know how easy or reliable it will be.

Decisions decisions …

Get Microsoft Entourage Web Services Edition today (if you're an existing paid-up Entourage user).

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