Exchange may be beating Lotus Notes on the mail and messaging front, but it still trails in collaboration features - and Microsoft officials know it.
"We feel we are very close to being on a par as an application infrastructure for developers as Lotus Notes," Thom Rizzo, Microsoft's product manager for Exchange, told ARN. "Today, you can do about 95 per cent of the things you can do on Lotus Notes on top of Exchange.
"The only issue is we have different tools and different objects and sometimes it's hard for developers to work out what those differences are."
So to fill the gaps it perceives exist between Exchange and Notes, Microsoft is concentrating its resources on providing added tools and Web functionality.
Developers will benefit from the company's decision to use a single object model across Exchange and Outlook, Microsoft's messaging and collaboration client.
"We want to provide more object model support for collaborative applications that people want to develop," Rizzo said. "That involves extending our object model CDO to support both the capabilities of Exchange server and Outlook in one model."
Currently, the two applications have separate object models to enable Outlook to talk to other messaging servers and Exchange to talk to other clients.
Rizzo said the decision to unify the object models was driven by developer feedback, which argued the majority of customers run Outlook against an Exchange server and vice versa.
But while the move more tightly integrates the two products, Rizzo maintains they will still run with other servers and clients.
"CDO will talk over whatever protocols you plug into it," Rizzo claims.
"Today we talk over MAPI and in the future, we'll talk over standard protocols like HTTP."
Going forward, CDO will also be backward-compatible with all versions of Exchange, Rizzo said.
Microsoft is also beefing up the Web functionality of the next versions of Outlook and Exchange, code-named Outlook 2000 and Platinum respectively.
Major enhancements in Outlook 2000 include folder homepages - where HTML pages can be hosted on the right-hand pane of any folder - that can be used to create applications; and the evolution of Outlook into an Active X control that can be hosted in a Web page.
"Developers can start using Outlook in Web applications and they can extend current Outlook applications to be Web applications," Rizzo said.
"The other big thing is that it starts moving them towards the future of Exchange which is these Web applications.
"Developers start understanding HTML so that when we start moving towards those types of forms environment, they are already placed to start moving with us."
Meanwhile, Platinum is being optimised to leverage the features of Office 2000, and Microsoft's flagship product, Windows NT 5.0.
Two-way replication being built into NT 5.0's Active Directory will mirror changes made in the Exchange directory in Active Directory and vice versa.
"You can make investments in the Exchange directory today and easily migrate that over to Active Directory in the future," Rizzo claims.
"So if you start using Exchange 5.5 now, you're already on your way to using the NT 5.0 application."
And Office 2000 integration will also make it easier to build applications, according to Rizzo.
Rizzo said Microsoft is also incorporating events into Exchange designed to make it easier for developers to create collaborative applications and the product will support OLE DB to allow SQL tools to be used against Exchange.
But Microsoft's bids to achieve more credibility in the collaboration field will not see it abandon its strength in mail and messaging, according to officials.
"We intend to get better and better in our area of core competency which is messaging and calendaring," Eric Lockard, Microsoft's general manager, Exchange group, said. "We understand this is mission critical and if users don't have this, they're not even in the game."
That will involve taking the scalability, reliability and interoperability of Exchange "to the next level", Lockard admits.
Ship dates for Platinum and Office 2000 are yet to be announced, but officials are planning for the next version of Exchange to be available within 90 days of NT 5.0, while Office 2000 - which is currently in second beta - is due in the first half of 1999.
Naomi Jackson travelled to Boston as a guest of Microsoft Australia