For about two hours on Monday, a big chunk of the technology world had its eyes focused on Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. And even with CEO Steve Jobs out on medical leave, Apple's execs managed to wow the assembled crowd and the tech-centric folks watching from afar with a wave of hardware and software unveilings.
As expected, the big news was the new iPhone 3G S, which was announced along with iPhone OS 3, the updated operating system for the phone and the iPod Touch -- and which will be released on June 17, two days before the iPhone 3G S itself. Apple officials talked up the September release of Mac OS X 10. 6 Snow Leopard and an updated range of laptops, but said nothing about the Snow Leopard version of Apple's Mac OS X Server -- despite a long list of improvements.
Even though the keynote had a distinct focus on consumer and end-user technologies, there were announcements at WWDC that business execs and IT pros shouldn't overlook. They say a lot about Apple's future in the business world.
Exchange: On the Mac and the iPhone
Without a doubt one of the biggest advances in Snow Leopard -- Apple's jokes at Microsoft's expense notwithstanding -- is the inclusion of Exchange support. Although Apple had already built Exchange and ActiveSync support into the iPhone, and while Mac OS X already offers support for authenticating logins against Active Directory, Exchange support has been functionally nonexistent -- even with Microsoft's Entourage e-mail client for Macs. The solid integration with Exchange and ActiveSync on the Mac is a major advance that makes Apple a more viable Windows alternative for many businesses.
In Snow Leopard, Exchange will be supported across the three core end-user features of Exchange -- e-mail, contacts and calendaring. This will provide Mac users access to their Exchange mailboxes (presumably including the ability to edit mail-related features such as rules and out-of-office replies). More importantly, it will offer full access to shared calendaring features, allowing users to create meeting invitations, schedule resources such as conference rooms and equipment, and track co-workers' free and busy times -- a very big deal for Mac workers. Add in Address Book support for not just personal contacts, but for Exchange's Global Address List, too, and Snow Leopard easily becomes a must-have update for many business Macs, as well as a key to further adoption.
From the demos and information on Apple's Web site, the company has gone to great lengths to integrate Exchange capabilities with its own technologies like Spotlight searching and data detectors for contact and date information within e-mail. Apple has also worked to make integration between Mail, iCal and Address Book easy (including drag-and-drop for scheduling meetings and global address list lookups) as well as making setup simple. As impressive as the Exchange support may be, however, it seems limited to these three areas. Other Outlook-enabled Exchange features, such as personal and group folders or task management, haven't been addressed. Longtime Outlook lovers may be annoyed by the spreading out of tasks typical in one application among three. And the fact that Exchange 2007 is required might preclude some organizations with smaller budgets -- schools and non-profits, for instance -- from getting in on the fun right away.
Overall, though, this may be the biggest sign yet that Apple is taking the needs of enterprise Mac users more seriously.
Mac OS X Server, the Exchange alternative
Ironically, at the same time that Apple is adding Exchange support into its OS, it's simultaneously positioning Mac OS X Server as a powerful alternative to Microsoft's suite.
With Leopard Server's introduction of iCal Server for shared calendaring via CalDAV -- and the wiki- and directory services-based collaborative tools in 2007 -- Mac OS X Server took tentative steps towards being a collaborative suite that could rival Exchange and SharePoint. With updated versions of both tools, as well as an updated e-mail server that supports push notification and a new Address Book Server based on the emerging CardDAV standard, Apple looks to be a serious contender with solid open-standards solutions and no per-seat licensing costs.
Throw in a new mobile-access server and iPhone-specific support in its tools and it's easy to see Apple gaining new customers -- particularly among smaller businesses with limited IT staff and budgets. Small businesses will not only appreciate the lower cost and broad client capabilities, but also Apple's continuing commitment to simplified setup and administration.
In addition to collaboration and ease of use, Snow Leopard Server stands to pack a lot of muscle, building on the same Grand Central and 64-bit technologies as the Snow Leopard OS that's coming in September. With a wide range of services included and updated -- messaging via iChat Server, podcast workflow production via Podcast Producer, a variety of Web services and a set of file-sharing and search technologies -- Snow Leopard Server offers existing Mac and multi-platform shops a lot to look forward to.