Microsoft, Novell Have Much to Prove

Microsoft and Novell have been making a big deal of their big deal to work together to soothe customers’ cross-platform pain points. But it remains to be seen whether and how far the deal will end up extending beyond the realm of press releases and presentation slide decks.
In fact, vaporous cooperation pledges aren’t even the worst of what might come of the Microsoft-Novell deal. Many in the open-source world fear that the deal’s patent pledges represent a route through which Microsoft could litigate GPL-licensed software projects into submission. This fear was real enough for Jeremy Allison–who, as one of the primary developers of Samba, certainly knows a thing or two about Microsoft, Linux and proprietary protocols–to tender his resignation from Novell.
For now, I’m prepared to set aside such fears. Microsoft knows that patent wars are bad for business, unless you happen to be in the business of pumping out pleadings. However, the collaboration initiatives that Novell and Microsoft have so far trumpeted–initiatives that deal with Web services, virtualization and document formats–haven’t convinced me that we’re at the dawn of the new era of interoperability.
Web services without interoperability is a non-starter, and neither Microsoft nor Novell commands this space fully enough to get away with anything less. Similarly, in the virtualization space, Novell and Microsoft are both upstarts looking to take a piece out of VMware, and OS agnosticism has marked the latter company’s wares from early on. If the virtualization offerings of a Microsoft and Novell collaboration can’t play nice with Linux and Windows alike, the virtualization initiatives of neither company are going anywhere.
While perhaps more enticing, the new duo’s announcements regarding document format compatibility can only go so far. Document formats are tied inextricably to the applications that create them, so compatibility can never be 100 percent complete unless you’re running the same versions of an application. Even different versions of the same Microsoft Office application will have format compatibility issues.
I contend that if Microsoft and Novell want to demonstrate their respective willingness to ease the cross-platform concerns of their customers, they would get the biggest bang for the buck by taking on a problem I’ve heard neither mention. I’m calling on the pair to teach Novell’s Evolution groupware client to speak to Microsoft’s Exchange Server in the same language that Outlook speaks: MAPI (Messaging API).
While it’s now possible to access Exchange Server quite well from any client on any platform via IMAP, IMAP is a mail-only solution. And if you’re not going to use Exchange’s calendaring functionality, why use Exchange at all?
There is a plug-in for Evolution, called the Exchange Connector, that provides access both to the e-mail and calendaring functionality of Exchange, but the Connector doesn’t work for many users. The trouble is that the Connector communicates with Exchange over the same channels as does Outlook Web Access, rather than through the MAPI interface that Outlook uses. This makes Evolution, at best, a second-class citizen as far as Exchange is concerned.
I’ve personally experienced enough ups and downs with the Connector to quit using it to access my own Exchange Server mailbox. I’m not alone: The lack of solid support for Exchange from a Linux mail client has been enough, for years now, to stall desktop Linux deployments in Exchange shops.
Until now, it arguably would have been naive to expect Microsoft, which has worked hard to shore up its client operating system monopoly, to participate in granting Linux clients full access to Exchange. But, as we’ve been told, the Redmond giant is out to help customers solve their cross-platform problems.
So, does the Novell/Microsoft deal really merit the “historic” label that many have attached to it, or was the accord only so much hype? Microsoft and Novell, your customers are in pain–now’s the time to deliver.