Brad Feld

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Why Did Microsoft License Exchange ActiveSync to Apple?

Sep 08, 2009
Category Technology

While I’m delighted that my iPhone syncs with my Exchange Server, I’ve been struggling to figure out why Microsoft licensed ActiveSync to Apple (and Google).  For a long time, I used a Windows Mobile device because of the integration with Exchange (I’ve never been a Blackberry fan).  Once the iPhone integrated with Exchange, that was it for me and I switched to the iPhone.

As I asked folks about this, I heard two reasons:

  1. The government made them.
  2. Ego: Microsoft wanted to be able to say “Apple licensed something from us”.

Neither of these is very satisfying to me.  No one said “licensing fee” – and I can’t image the magnitude of the license fee is material to either party.  Some people are speculating its a clever move by Apple but that leaves me perplexed as it is so obviously useful to Apple users that I can’t believe Apple didn’t do it years ago.

When Apple released Snow Leopard and we started talking about the upgrade for the Mac users in our office, one potential reason occurred to me.  After some discussion, we realized we needed Exchange 2007 to be able to have Snow Leopard connect to Exchange natively.  Hmmm – we have been running Exchange 2003 (very nicely, thank you very much) since – well – 2003. 

As a result, the only thing that motivated us to upgrade to Exchange 2007 is Apple Snow Leopard integration of Exchange ActiveSync.  If this is the reason, it’s a smart strategic move on Microsoft’s part.  As part of our Exchange 2007 upgrade, we are buying a two year “upgrade insurance” package so we’ll get an upgrade to Exchange 2010 for free.  Microsoft defers any discussion around switching to Google Apps for us for at least three more years.  While Microsoft runs the risk of losing desktop clients in the enterprise, I think they were going to lose these clients anyway to a Mac + Internet based solution so now they at least get to keep the server piece firmly in place.

While Microsoft has finally announced a version of Outlook for the Mac, it seems like a completely irrelevant thing at this point given how miserable and hated Entourage is (e.g. Mac users have already figured out a different email solution.)  Now with native Exchange integration into the free (and perfectly adequate) Mac email client, the discussion around this seems to be over.

Of course, I could be over thinking this.  Microsoft’s press release around this reads like “hey – look – we are licensing our IP – isn’t software IP great – aren’t we nice?” so there could be something here around software patents.  I’m struggling to reconcile Microsoft’s 2008 Interoperability Principles with the notion that they are licensing the IP to access these “interoperable software components.”  Per the press release:

“The Exchange ActiveSync IP Licensing program is another example of how we are continuing to deliver on our commitment to increased openness and collaboration,” said Horacio Gutierrez, vice president of intellectual property and licensing at Microsoft. “This technology is being sought out by our partners and competitors alike because it enhances their value proposition to their customers, and we believe that to be a testament to the innovation taking place at Microsoft.” 

It feels like there is a deep master plan going on here.  I just can’t seem to figure it out.  Now, if Apple would just implement Exchange Task sync on the iPhone, I’d be really happy.